As a highly mutated coronavirus variant, B.1.1.529, is found in South Africa, here is what scientists and WHO is saying about its potential

Should We Worry About The New Coronavirus Variant B.1.1.529? Here Is What Scientists And WHO Say

by Bhaswati Guha Majumder - Friday, November 26, 2021 03:44 PM IST
Should We Worry About The New Coronavirus Variant B.1.1.529? Here Is What Scientists And WHO Say Coronavirus (Representative Image)
  • The newly detected variant, B.1.1.529, appears to be rapidly spreading across South Africa.

    WHO is monitoring the new variant and will have a special meeting to explore what it may entail for vaccines and treatments.

South African researchers are scrambling to keep track of a worrying new variant of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

As per reports, the variant contains a huge number of mutations that have been reported in other variants—including Delta, which caused the second wave in India and is now causing a surge in cases in Europe.

Scientists understand that the more they provide clarity about the virus variant, the more swiftly defence strategies can be made.

This time after the discovery of the new variant, some scientists are reportedly concerned that the B.1.1.529 with an extraordinarily high number of mutations may cause new waves of sickness by avoiding the body's defences.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, shared information about the novel variant on a genome-sharing website, saying that the "incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern”.

In a Twitter thread, Dr Peacock wrote this variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile”, but he added that it may turn out to be an “odd cluster” that is not very transmissible. “I hope that’s the case,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, according to PTI, Professor Adrian Puren, Acting Executive Director of The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the national public health institute of South Africa, said: “It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa.”

While explaining, he said: “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. Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date.”

Currently, scientists are also trying to figure out whether the variant can avoid immune responses elicited by vaccines and whether it causes more or less severe disease than other variants. In this case, Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is testing the variant's ability to evade vaccine immunity and past infections in her lab. She said that even though there have been anecdotal reports of reinfections and instances in vaccinated people, “at this stage it’s too early to tell anything”.

Similarly, at a press briefing organised by South Africa’s health department on 25 November, Richard Lessells, who is an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, stated that “There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant”.

“The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic,” he added.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring the new variant and will have a special meeting on 26 November to explore what it may entail for vaccines and treatments.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, clarified in a Question and Answer session that was live-streamed on the UN organisation’s social media channel: “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,” she added.

According to Dr Kerkhove, right now researchers are getting together to understand these mutations and what that particularly may mean for the diagnostics, therapeutics and currently available vaccines.

“It is good that they are being detected. It means that we have a system in place. [But] It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has,” the WHO expert noted while adding that there is a lot that is currently underway.

Moreover, Dr Kerkhove stated that people need to understand that “the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see”. So, she urged people to play their part in slowing down the transmission, as well as protecting themselves from severe disease.

“Get vaccinated when you can. Make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else,” said Dr Kerkhove.

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