What Do We Know About the New COVID Variant

We’re back to square one with a new Covid-19 variant.

A new Covid-19 variant has been found in South Africa, quite different from all other previous versions of the virus. Positivity rates for the new variant are rising, and researchers are rushing to find more information.

There are a lot of questions about the transmission of the variant, how deadly it is and how our vaccines fare against it. It’s still too early to comment on such questions, but we’ve compiled all the information available for you. Have a read:

The New Variant

The new Covid-19 Coronavirus variant was first discovered in Botswana and South Africa and has been coined as the B.1.1.529 variant. It has been detected in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini. The variant seems to be more transmissible than previous versions of the Covid-19 virus. 

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stated that “detected cases and percent testing positive are both increasing quickly.” This latest variant seems to spread much faster, but how deadly, is still a grey area. The World Health Organization (WHO) will convene together on November 26 to discuss the variant. There is a chance that the B.1.1.529 will be dubbed as either a variant of interest or concern. 

If it does get flagged by the WHO, it will likely be named Nu – the next available letter in the Greek naming system for Coronavirus variants.

How Different Is It?

“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, “The mutation profile gives us concern.”

Researchers have spotted B.1.1.529 in genome-sequencing data from Botswana, and the variant seems to stand out a lot. It has over 30 changes to the spike protein. For regular people like us, this is the SARS-CoV-2 protein found in the original virus and is the main target of our immune system. A lot of these changes were also found in the Alpha and Delta variants and were the reason behind their heightened infectivity and the ability to evade antibodies.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said the new variant has ten mutations in the receptor-binding domain (the part that makes first contact with our body) compared to two in the Delta variant.

How Far Has It Spread?

Earlier, there were only ten confirmed cases of the B.1.1.529 variant; 3 in Botswana, 6 in South Africa, and one person in Hong Kong who had traveled from South Africa. In a briefing, South Africa’s health department revealed that the variant had spread much further than initially recorded. 

De Oliveira reported in a Twitter thread that the percentage of Covid-19 testing samples that contained the new variant has shot up by 50% in the past two weeks.

A total of 22 positive cases have been recorded in South Africa alone. Around 59 cases have been detected worldwide. The U.K. has added the six African countries to its travel quarantine list on Thursday.  In Gauteng, where the variant originated, case rates rose with a test positivity of 31.7% compared to under 2% in California. 

Professor Adrian Puren, acting executive director of NICD, stated, “Although the data [is] limited, our experts are working overtime […] to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be.”

What About Vaccines?

With the advent of another Covid-19 variant, the question on everybody’s mind is; will our vaccines protect us from it? The heavy mutations in the B.1.1.529 variant’s spike protein make it unlikely so. 

The immune protection from our vaccines or previous infections is aligned towards previous variants and their spike protein. Our vaccines are somewhat flexible and can fight off variants that are a little different from the original virus. But their efficacy drops as the difference between the two increases. The variant in question, B.1.1.529, is too different from the earlier versions of the Covid-19 virus for any fully developed vaccine to work.

Regardless, it is still too early to tell how much of a problem the new variant will be. More data needs to be collected, and research conducted to make an accurate prediction. “Developments are occurring at a rapid pace, and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date,” said Professor Adrian Puren.

Final Thoughts

The B.1.1.529 variant is a reminder that the pandemic still isn’t over. We should all be taking necessary safety precautions, even after being fully vaccinated. Our vaccines don’t offer 100% protection, so wearing masks, being socially distant, and staying aware of public health alerts is important.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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