LONDON: A new variant of COVID-19 has emerged in southern Africa with an “incredibly high” number of mutations, scientists have warned.
It is feared that the variant, officially named B.1.1529 and first identified in Botswana, could drive further transmissions of the disease.
Very few cases, just 10, have been identified so far, all of them related to southern Africa.
The first three cases were identified in Botswana, and six more were found in South Africa. The last was identified in Hong Kong, in a traveler who had returned from South Africa.
The variant has an unusually high number of variations, which may allow it to evade natural and vaccine-induced immunity.
Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said the variant could be “of real concern” as its 32 spike protein mutations could enable it to more easily evade the immune system.
Peacock said on Twitter that the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” which has the potential to make it more contagious than previous variants.
He added: “Export to Asia implies that this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply.
“Also, the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.
“It’s worth emphasizing that this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled. However, it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile.”
New COVID-19 variants are regularly identified, but many pose no greater risk than previous versions. Some, however, have proved to be devastating — such as the delta variant, first identified in Britain, which went on to become the dominant strain in the UK and many other places because of its higher infection rate.
Another scientist, Prof. Francois Balloux, director of UCL’s Genetics Institute, told The Independent newspaper that the new strain could be a result of an infection in an immunocompromised person, such as one with HIV/AIDS, and that this could explain its highly irregular genetic formation.
“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognized by neutralizing antibodies relative to alpha or delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage,” Balloux said.
“So far, four strains have been sequenced in a region of sub-Saharan Africa with reasonable surveillance in place.
“It may be present in other parts of Africa. For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analyzed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”