How virus variant quickly dominated part of South Africa

  • A new variant of coronavirus, B.1.1.529, has spread rapidly in South Africa.
  • A chart from the country’s Ministry of Health shows how it shot to dominance in one province.
  • The variant’s high level of mutations to the nail protein is of concern to scientists.

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A chart from South African officials shows how a new coronavirus variant quickly came to dominate a province in the country and replaced the Delta variant.

It was revealed in a briefing from the South African Ministry of Health on Thursday with a warning about the B.1.1.529 variant.

As of Friday, the variant had been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. Its origin is unclear.

Prof. Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation near Cape Town, said the data in the chart are from samples taken in the province of Gauteng from 12 November to 22 November.

During that period, B.1.1.529 completely overtook the Delta and Beta variants present in Gauteng. The variety has grown rapidly there and may already be present in most of the country’s provinces, he said.

B.1.1.529 – represented by the blue part – represented 75% of the cases detected within just two weeks. Its ascent was much faster than Beta (green) and Delta (red) variants, each of which took months to become dominant.

de Oliveira said the B.1.1.529 cases were drawn from 77 samples – a relatively small number but with a clear direction of travel.

The Financial Times produced another chart illustrating the rate of increase of the variant:

The rise in infections from the variant in Gauteng “shocked” de Oliveira and his colleagues, he told the South African channel SABC News.

One of the biggest fears of the variant is that its high levels of mutation in its nail protein may inhibit the body’s immune response, as Insiders Dr. Catherine Schuster-Bruce reported.

In a speech to SABC News, de Oliveira said it was too early to know if the vaccine would work against B.1.1.529, but said scientists expect it to hold “against hospitalizations and deaths.”

“Vaccines are the strongest weapon in our arsenal to fight that virus,” he said. He also urged people to avoid mass gatherings and to wear masks as scientists track the variant.

Britain has blocked flights from 6 African countries in response to the alarm, with the EU considering similar measures.

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