A heavily-mutated Covid variant emerges in southern Africa: Here’s what we know so far

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  • WHO officials said the variant, known as B.1.1.529, has been found in small numbers in South Africa.
  • South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said at a media briefing that the variants contain more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells.
  • Britain immediately banned flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

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The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to discuss a new heavily-mutated version of COVID-19.

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WHO officials said the variant, known as B.1.1.529, has been found in small numbers in South Africa. The variant contains more than 30 mutations for the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells, South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said at a media briefing organized by South Africa’s health department on Thursday.

This is significantly higher than the delta version, which spread like wildfire earlier this year to become the major worldwide strain. Health officials have said that many of these mutations are associated with increased antibody resistance, which can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and affect the behavior of the virus with respect to vaccines, treatments and infections.

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Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said in a live-streamed Q&A that scientists “don’t know a lot about it yet” and that it is difficult to gain a full picture of how the variant reacts. It will take a few weeks for existing vaccines.

Britain immediately banned flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from noon on Friday until 4 a.m. local time on Sunday.

The UK’s Health Protection Agency is investigating the version, which Health Secretary Sajid Javid said is “potentially related.” No cases have been identified in the UK yet

The first genome of the new variant was uploaded to the international GISAID database on 22 November, but the genomes now uploaded from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong are not yet known.

Cases so far are concentrated in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region and home to nearly 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Fahala said during Thursday’s briefing.

Investors rushed for cover, with the South African rand falling over 16.2 against the dollar on Friday morning.

The new development comes as cases of COVID-19 surge in the winter months around the world, with many countries in Europe witnessing notably record spikes, and implementing strict containment measures.

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