Scientists have warned that with an extremely high number of mutations the new Covid variant is possibly the most evolved strain yet and could be worse than the Delta variant. There are also fears that the latest strain may also evade existing vaccines.
The new B.1.1.529 variant is a mutation of an older variant called B.1.1. It has 32 spike mutations and has been found in Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa. It is also the most evolved strain of the coronavirus and according to scientists, “could escape existing vaccines”.
So far only ten cases have been detected, but they have not been isolated to just one country. Having been identified in three different countries suggests that the new strain could be more widespread and leads experts to believe "that this could be something of a major impact".
The single case that was identified in Hong Kong came from an individual who had travelled to South Africa on October 23 and returned on November 11. The man tested negative on his return to Hong Kong but went on to test positive on November 13, while quarantining at a hotel.
This case ignited fear that more infections could have spread through international travel.
The high number of mutations in this new variant has prompted concern amongst the scientific community because a number of the mutations could help the virus to dodge immunity.
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College tweeted about the find, describing the variant's combination of mutations as “horrific”.
Peacock described the mutations of the new strain as “really awful” and added that “it had the potential to be worse than nearly anything else about”, including the now-dominant Delta strain, which has 16 spike mutations.
He noted that “Export to Asia implies 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 (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies).
"Worth emphasising 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 (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about).”
To date, only three cases have been detected in Botswana and six in South Africa. The first cases were collected in Botswana on November 11.
South Africa saw cases rise from 312 on Monday to more than 860 on Tuesday but scientists believe it is too soon to tell whether there is actually a link with the new “super variant”.
New coronavirus variants are identified all the time and will not often spread beyond a handful of cases.
Currently, there are no cases of the new B.1.1.529 variant in the UK, however, officials and scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have said that they are monitoring and investigating the variant.
Dr Meera Chand, Covid-19 Incident Director at UKHSA, said: “The UK Health Security Agency, in partnership with scientific bodies across the globe, is constantly monitoring the status of SARS-CoV-2 variants as they emerge and develop worldwide”.
“As it is like viruses to mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.”
Professor Francois Balloux, who is director of the University College London’s Genetics Institute, said that the variant may have developed during chronic infection in an immunocompromised person, possibly an untreated HIV/Aids patient.
He said: “I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognised by neutralising antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta.
“It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage. For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”