South African scientists have raised an alarm about a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in small numbers as they work to understand its potential implications.
Gatekeepers News reports on Thursday scientists explained that the variant. which is called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation” of new mutations that could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.
Twenty-two positive cases of the new variant have been confirmed in the country, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, told a news conference.
The variant “has a very high number of mutations”, he said. “It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections.
“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks,” he added.
According to him, the new variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.
The nation’s daily infections jumped to over 1,200 on Wednesday, up from about 100 earlier this month.
Authorities had before the detection of the new variant, predicted that a fourth wave may hit the country around the middle of December, due to travel ahead of the festive season.
The NICD said in a statement on Thursday confirmed that detected cases and the percentage testing positive were “increasing quickly” in three of the country’s provinces including Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital.
“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” it said.
Researcher Richard Lessells said the coming days and weeks would be key to determining the severity of the variant.
“What gives us some concerns (is) that this variant might have not just have enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” he said.
It was gathered that the variant is common among young people.
Professor Helen Rees, of the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, urged people not to panic.
“[Currently] we are trying to identify how widely spread this is. There will be a lot of work looking at: Is it more transmissible? Is it associated with any more severity of disease? Does it render the vaccines less effective?”
“In the meantime, our big request to the world, in terms of vaccinating the African region, is please get the vaccines out into the region because as we know variants don’t stay in one country,” she added.