Scientists have detected a new variant of SARS-Cov-2 (the covid virus), currently only referred to in acronym, B.1.1.529, and are working to understand its potential implications.
B.1.1.529 comes with an unusual constellation of mutations that could help the virus evade our immune response and make it more transmissible. Any new variant capable of evading vaccines or spreading more rapidly than the now dominant Delta (B.1.617.2) can pose a significant threat just as the world is struggling to emerge from the pandemic. There are currently around 50 confirmed cases identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
Where was it found? The first clues from analytical laboratory reports suggest that B.1.1.529 has rapidly spread to the South African province of Gauteng and may already be present in the other eight provinces of the country. In a recent daily report, the NICD, a South African analogue of our Higher Institute of Health, reported 2,465 covid infections, just under double those of the previous day: the report does not attribute the increase in infections to the new variant. even if some important local scientists suspect that it is the cause and, indeed, many believe that it may be at the origin of 90% of new cases in Gauteng.
How does it compare to the other variants? Expert scientists have described B.1.1.529 as the worst variant that has emerged since the beginning of the pandemic, with as many as 32 mutations in the spike protein, that is the part of the virus that most vaccines use to activate the immune system against the coivd. That’s about double the number of mutations presented by the current dominant variant, the Delta. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but they also make it more difficult for immune cells to attack the virus.
The Delta variant was first detected in India in late 2020 and has spread around the world, causing an increase in infections and deaths. Other coronavirus variants include Alpha (B.1.1.7, which originated in Kent, UK), Beta (B.1.351, formerly known as South African) and Gamma (P.1, which emerged in Brazil). With respect to the proliferation of variants, following the decline in cases in Japan some scientists also suggest that the virus may move until it disappears.