Coronavirus: WHO monitoring new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — An emergent coronavirus variant detected in South Africa is being eyed cautiously by public health officials after it displayed dozens of mutations.

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The variant, called B.1.1.529, has only been detected in small clusters to date, CNBC reported.

“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,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said in a Q&A that was live-streamed on the organization’s social media channels.

Meanwhile, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid tweeted on Thursday that the UK Health Security Agency is “investigating a new variant.”

According to The New York Times, the new variant emerged in the past 36 hours after a cluster of cases were detected in South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng province. A total of 22 cases of the COVID-19 variant have been diagnosed across South Africa to date, according to the nation’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“Especially when the spike happens in Gauteng, everybody travels in and out of Gauteng from all corners of South Africa. So it’s a given that in the next few days, the beginning of rising positivity rate and numbers is going to be happening. It’s a matter of days and weeks before we see that,” South Africa Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said during a news briefing.

According to CNBC, South African scientists studying the new variant have detected more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body.

In turn, the WHO has scheduled a special meeting Friday to discuss what B.1.1.529 means for vaccine and treatments. Specifically, the virus evolution working group will decide if the new strain will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern, and it will be assigned a letter of the Greek alphabet, the network reported.

“This variant did surprise us. It has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of delta,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, told the Times.

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