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WHO convenes special meeting to discuss new Covid variant from South Africa with “large number of mutations”

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RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head ai Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a press conference on the situation of the coronavirus at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization is monitoring a new variant with numerous mutations in the spike protein and is planning a special meeting on Friday to discuss what that could mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said Thursday.

According to the WHO, the variant with the designation B.1.1.529 was found in small numbers in South Africa.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. “Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director on Covid-19, said in a question-and-answer session that was broadcast live on the organization’s social media channels.

The new variant is being monitored because Covid cases increase worldwide before Christmas, with the WHO reporting hotspots in all regions and particularly in Europe.

South African scientists have discovered more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to cells in the body, said South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira in a media briefing hosted by the South African Ministry of Health on Thursday.

Variant B.1.1.529 contains several mutations associated with increased antibody resistance that can decrease the effectiveness of vaccines, as well as mutations that generally make them more contagious, according to the slides he presented at the meeting. No other mutations have been seen in the new variant so far, so scientists don’t yet know whether they’re significant or will change the behavior of the virus, the presentation said.

The variant has spread rapidly in Gauteng Province, which is home to the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.

“Especially when the ascent occurs in Gauteng, everyone travels in and out of Gauteng from all corners of South Africa. So it goes without saying that in the next few days the start of an increasing positivity rate and increasing numbers will take place a matter of days and weeks until we see that, “said South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla during the briefing.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, said Phaahla.

“Right now, researchers are coming together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site and what this could potentially mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and vaccines,” said Van Kerkhove. She said there are fewer than 100 complete genomic sequences of the new mutation.

The virus development working group will decide whether B.1.1.529 will be an interesting or worrying variant, after which the WHO would assign a Greek name to the variant, Van Kerkhove said.

“It is really important that there are no knee-jerk reactions here, especially with regard to South Africa,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Emergency Program.

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