The World Health Organization (WHO) called a meeting on Friday to discuss a new mutant strain of COVID-19 that is spreading in South Africa.
Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s minister of health, identified the new variant as B.1.1.529, Fox News reported. He said the strain appears to be highly contagious, especially among young people.
Meanwhile, a BBC health reporter wrote that the new variant has a “long list of mutations.”
“This variant did surprise us,” Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Center for South Africa’s Epidemic Response and Innovation, told the BBC. “It has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected.”
Nature magazine reported that the strain was first detected in Botswana earlier this month. The report said scientists are working to find out if the variant can evade the immune response and vaccine protection. One researcher in Johannesburg said, “We’re flying at warp speed,” said the magazine.
Epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said one detection of the virus occurred in Southern Africa, when one person quarantining in a hotel passed it on to another guest. “It’s very airborne,” Feigl-Ding told the Daily Mail. “The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swabs across both rooms.”
The New York Post published an explainer about the new variant, examining its potential to evade vaccines. “B.1.1.529 has a spike protein that is drastically different to the one in the original bug that the vaccines are based on, according to the UK Health Security Agency, which is raising some concern about how current jabs will perform against it,” the Post explained.
“South Africa’s Department of Health also said during a briefing Thursday that the variant contains several mutations associated with increased antibody resistance, which may reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines,” the Post added. More from the outlet:
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press that the data so far suggests that the virus’ mutations are “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, told CNBC, “It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines.”
“Right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said, adding that the agency could label the strain the Greek name Nu.
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