A new variant detected in South Africa

The impression of going back in time. A new variant of Covid-19 has been detected in South Africa, scientists announced on Thursday.

“We have unfortunately detected a new variant which is a source of concern (in the country)”, declared the virologist Tulio de Oliveira, during a press conference.

An “extremely high” number of mutations

The B.1.1.529 variant shows an “extremely high” number of mutations and “we can see that it has a potential for very rapid spread,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira said at an online press conference overseen by the Ministry of Health.

His team at the KRISP research institute, backed by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, had already discovered the highly contagious Beta variant last year.

The metamorphoses of the initial virus can potentially make it more transmissible, to the point of making the variant dominant: this was the case with the Delta variant initially discovered in India, and which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) reduced to 40% the effectiveness of anti-Covid vaccines against disease transmission.

A risk of immune escape

At this point, South African scientists are unsure of the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new form of the virus.

“What concerns us is that this variant may not only have an increased transmission capacity, but also be able to bypass parts of our immune system,” said another researcher, Professor Richard Lessells.

To date, 22 cases have been reported, mostly affecting young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). Cases have also been reported in neighboring Botswana and Hong Kong, on a person returning from a trip to South Africa.

“Follow closely” this new variant

The WHO has declared “to follow closely” this new variant and must meet Friday to determine its dangerousness.

“There are many variants but some do not have an impact on the progression of the epidemic”, tempered at a press conference John Nkengasong, of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the African Union ( Africa CDC).

“Major threat”

Health structures must expect a new wave of patients in the coming days or weeks, the scientists warned.

South Africa has seen a further rise in contamination in recent weeks. First attributed to the Delta variant, this “exponential” increase is rather caused by the last mutated form, which represents “a major threat”, said the Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla. His appearance “reinforces the fact that this invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” he added.

According to scientists, the new variant B.1.1.529 has at least ten mutations, compared to two for the Delta. “The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer for Covid-19, during ‘an online press briefing.

Weeks “to understand the impact of this variant”

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand the impact of this variant on any potential vaccine,” she added.

The authorities fear a new wave of pandemic by the end of the year. More than 1,200 new cases in 24 hours were recorded Wednesday, against a hundred at the beginning of the month.

South Africa is officially the African country most affected by the virus: it has nearly 2.93 million cases and more than 89,500 deaths. To date, 41% of eligible adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 35% are fully immunized.

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