Scientists in South Africa are studying a recently identified new coronavirus variant of concern, stoking fears the country may confront a potentially harsh fourth wave that could spread internationally.
The new discovery, called B.1.1529 until a Greek letter is stated, carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from past incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday (Friday AEDT).
“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at the same media event. “We were hopeful that we might have a longer break in between groups – possibly that it would keep up off to late December or already next year January.”
Virologists have detected almost 100 situations connected to the variant in the country to date, said Anne von Gottberg, clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. World Health Organisation officials have met to discuss the virus, which has also been detected in Botswana, according to a separate statement.
In Botswana – a neighbour of South Africa – the new variant has been detected in vaccinated people, Kereng Masupu, co-ordinator of the Presidential COVID-19 Task Force, said in a statement.
B.1.1529 is likely to have evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute. The world’s biggest number of HIV situations has complicated South Africa’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as immunocompromised people can harbour the virus for longer, scientists say.
The findings come as several European countries battle a renewed surge in COVID-19 case numbers, with hospitals in some German cities starting to feel the strain. Governments are considering a fresh round of restrictions, largely against the unvaccinated, to try and curb the spread.
South Africa is currently on the lowest level of lockdown measures, though the new variant prompted the cabinet and coronavirus council to call a meeting for the weekend.
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