Covid variant B.1.1.529 appears in South Africa: we know that


A man enters the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on June 15, 2021.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to discuss a new highly mutated variant of Covid-19.

The variant known as B.1.1.529 has been found in small numbers in South Africa, WHO officials said.

South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said in a media briefing from the South African Ministry of Health on Thursday that the variant contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells.

This is significantly more than the Delta variant, which spread like wildfire at the beginning of the year and became the world’s dominant variety. Many of these mutations are linked to increased antibody resistance, which can reduce vaccine effectiveness and affect the virus’ behavior regarding vaccines, treatments, and communicability, health officials said.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director on Covid-19, said in a livestream question and answer on Thursday that scientists “don’t know very much about it yet” and that it would take a few weeks to get a full picture of it how the variant responds to existing vaccines.

Great Britain immediately decided to ban flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from Friday noon to Sunday 4 a.m. local time.

The British health authority is investigating the variant, which, according to Minister of Health Sajid Javid, is “possibly worrying”. No cases have yet been identified in the UK

Because of the new variant, Israel has also banned travel to several South African countries and Singapore.

Distribution not yet known

The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on November 22nd, but genomes from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong have now been uploaded, the extent of which is not yet known.

The cases so far have been concentrated in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region and home to nearly 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during Thursday’s briefing.

The South African rand tumbled above 16.2 against the dollar on Friday morning as investors sought cover.

The new development comes with the worldwide increase in Covid-19 cases in the winter months, with several countries in Europe in particular recording record peaks and implementing strict containment measures.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNBC Friday that the suggestions that the variant could be more communicable than Delta and that it could bypass vaccination protection meant that this was “a matter of serious concern” .

“The Delta variant is already extremely transferable. It’s really hard to imagine another virus that is more transmissible, ”Schaffner told CNBC’s“ Squawk Box Asia ”.

“If we have another strain of Covid that can spread even more easily than Delta, it would be a challenge for all of us around the world because when Delta arrived this summer it changed the game.”

So far, however, it has been positive that the variant has not been associated with more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.

Markets troubled

Markets around the world plummeted in response to the news, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 losing 3% in early trading and US stock futures pointing to an opening loss of more than 800 points for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.