Researchers are tracking COVID-19 variants with ‘worrying’ numbers of mutations

  • A variant with ‘worrying’ number of mutations has been detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
  • Experts are concerned its mutations may help it avoid antibodies produced by vaccines and treatments.
  • It has been discovered 82 times as of Thursday. So far, it is being closely monitored.

Researchers and health officials are closely following a coronavirus variant with a “worrying” number of mutations that have been detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that binds to human cells, called the nail protein – the target of existing vaccines and antibody treatments. A higher number of mutations in the nail protein can change its shape and means that there is a greater risk that these vaccines and treatments will not be effective against it.

Experts are concerned that the mutations can make the virus more contagious and help it avoid the antibody reaction, but this has not been proven. It is not yet clear whether the mutations make the virus more deadly.

COVID-19 vaccines remain a “critical tool” to protect against serious illness, Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the South African Center for Epidemiology and Innovation, said in a briefing Thursday.

Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, who wrote about the variant on Github on Tuesday, said the high number of mutations could be of “real concern” and that there were combinations of mutations he had not seen before in a single variant. of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said in a statement to the Science Media Center on Wednesday that the large number of mutations that appear to have occurred in a single outbreak indicates that the variant evolved from a chronic infection in an immunocompromised individual.

B.1.1.529 was first detected on 11 November and has been sequenced 82 times – 77 cases in South Africa, four cases in neighboring Botswana and one case in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong case was attributed to a person who had traveled to South Africa, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases on Thursday.

Peacock warned that “exports to Asia” could indicate that it is more widespread than the sequences alone suggest.

Professor Adrian Puren, acting CEO of the NICD, said in a statement Thursday that NICD experts “worked overtime” to understand the new variant and its potential implications.

Ravi K Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at Cambridge University said on Twitter on Wednesday that the B.1.1.529 variant was “worrying, and I have not said that since Delta”. The highly infectious Delta variant, which is the most common variant worldwide, has 11 to 15 mutations in its tip protein, and some of them help it avoid the immune response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus are likely to result in a high level of escape from neutralizing antibodies,” Gupta said.

Dr. Michelle Groome, head of the Department of Public Health Monitoring and Response at the NICD, said that individual compliance with preventive measures could have a “major collective impact” on limiting the spread of the new variant. “This means that individuals should be vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distance and gather in well-ventilated spaces,” she said.

The World Health Organization and health officials from South Africa, where most cases have been discovered, are to meet to discuss the variant on Friday.

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