Concern over a mega-mutated strain of COVID has grown in the last 24 hours, with new variant spreading in South Africa and two cases detected in Hong Kong.
Scientists are rushing to determine how transmissible the strain is, whether it’s more likely to evade the vaccine, and whether it causes more severe illness than other versions.
“This is clearly a variant that we must be very serious about,” Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press.
At the moment, the number of documented cases of B.1.1.529 is small—around 100—but health officials fear it may be fueling a dramatic surge in new cases in South Africa. The country—where less than half of all adults are vaccinated—went from about 200 new cases a day to 10 times that on Thursday.
So far, the variant has been identified in only three places: South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong—where a visitor from South Africa tested positive while in quarantine, as did someone in a hotel room across from them.
The United Kingdom reacted to the news of the strain by suspending flights from six African nations until scientists know more about how quickly it spreads and how effective the current vaccines are at preventing infection.
The discovery of a new variant is not catastrophic in and of itself, but scientists say this one has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, which is what binds the virus to human cells.
“The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said on Thursday.
South African health authorities said some of the mutations are already tied to increased contagiousness and antibody resistance—and some of the infections in Botswana were found in people who had been vaccinated.
The WHO is meeting on Friday to discuss the new variant and may decide to give it a nickname from the Greek alphabet—just like the Delta variant, which triggered recent worldwide surges.
More work must be done to determine if B.1.1.529 is something akin to Delta or more like other variants that have not brought a sustained, widespread increase in cases.
Gupta told the AP that it’s fortunate the variant is already on the global radar.
“South African scientists have done an incredible job of identifying this quickly and bringing it to the world’s attention,” he said.
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