South Africa detects new COVID-19 variant, implications not yet clear

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Scientists in South Africa said, on Thursday, that they have discovered a new type of COVID-19 virus in small numbers, and are working to understand its possible repercussions.

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The scientists told reporters at a news conference that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which is of concern because it may help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.

They said early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggested the variant had increased rapidly in the most populous Gauteng province and may already be present in the country’s eight other provinces.

South Africa has confirmed about 100 samples as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the case of a Hong Kong traveler from South Africa. Scientists believe that up to 90% of the new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529.

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“Despite limited data, our experts are working overtime with all existing surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what potential effects it could have,” South Africa’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases said in a statement.

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South Africa requested an urgent session of the World Health Organization’s working group on the evolution of the virus on Friday to discuss a new alternative.

Health Minister Jo Bhala said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the alternative.

South Africa was the first country to discover a beta release last year.

Beta is one of only four described as “of concern” by the World Health Organization because there is evidence that it is more contagious and that vaccines work less effectively against it.

The state discovered another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not replaced the more common delta variant and still represents only a small percentage of the genome sequenced in recent months.