WHO To Discuss New ‘Worst Ever’ Covid-19 Variant, UK Bans Flights From Southern Africa

The B.1.1.529 variant — which has 32 mutations in the spike protein, double that of Delta — has been found in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is monitoring a new coronavirus variant — the most heavily mutated version identified so far — emerging from Southern Africa.

CNBC reported that the WHO will meet today to discuss what the B.1.1.529 variant will mean for Covid-19 vaccines and treatment.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead Dr Maria Van Kerkhove was quoted saying.

The United Kingdom today banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe and placed these countries on a travel red list over the B.1.1.529 variant that is feared to be the worst Covid-19 variant yet.

The Guardian reported Whitehall sources as saying that the new variant — which is feared to be more contagious and may be able to evade immunity — posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine programme which we have to protect at all costs”.

The first identified cases of the variant were collected in Botswana on November 11. A case was also found in Hong Kong — a 36-year-old man who tested positive during quarantine after flying from South Africa. 

American epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted that another guest from across the hallway of the infected man on quarantine in Hong Kong had also been infected with B.1.1.529. Both cases were vaccinated with Pfizer. 

Dr Feigl-Ding said the traveller from South Africa was discovered to be infected on the fourth day of quarantine on his second PCR test, while the other tested positive on Day Eight of quarantine on a fourth PCR test. 

The viral load of these two cases, he said, was extremely high with Ct values of 18 and 19, considering that they tested negative on previous PCR tests, as he warned that “vaccine evasion could be real with this variant”.

The Guardian reported Prof Anne Von Gottberg, head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa, as saying that 100 cases of the B.1.1.529 variant have now been confirmed in South Africa, up from 10 reported last Wednesday, with signs of community transmission. 

South African scientists reportedly attributed the rise of Covid-19 cases in the Gauteng region of South Africa to the variant, accounting for about 90 per cent of cases in just weeks. Daily new Covid-19 infections in South Africa reached 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 earlier in the month.

According to the UK newspaper, senior scientists yesterday described B.1.1.529 as the worst variant they have ever seen since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic with a “very unusual” constellation of mutations that can help the virus evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.

B.1.1.529 has 32 mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alone, the part of the virus used by most vaccines to prime the immune system against Covid-19. That is about twice as many mutations with the Delta variant.

Imperial College London virologist Dr Tom Peacock tweeted that B.1.1.529 should be monitored because of its “really awful spike mutation profile”.

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