Why the Coronavirus variant that emerged in South Africa is causing so much concern

Varios países europeos ya han restringido sus viajes a  ciertos lugares de África.

We are back in familiar territory: growing concern about a new variant of the coronavirus.

The last it is the most mutated version discovered so far, and it has such a long list of variations that one scientist described it as “horrible,” while another said it was the worst variant they had ever seen, according to James Gallagher, a BBC health correspondent.

It is too early to draw conclusions. Confirmed cases are mainly concentrated in one province from South Africa, but there are indications that it may have spread further.

This Friday, Belgium confirmed the first infected with the new variant. This is a passenger who arrived from Egypt on November 11, as confirmed by virologist Marc Van Ranst, researcher of the response to the pandemic in this European country.

The UK authorities decided to take precautions and travelers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini (Swaziland) who are already in the country will have to quarantine, and from this Friday flights with that origin will be suspended.

Mutation graph.

France suspended flights from these destinations, in addition to Swaziland, with immediate effect and for at least 48 hours.

Germany, Japan, Italy and Singapore also imposed similar restrictions.

And the European Commission has recommended to member countries the introduction of an “emergency brake” on all travel from southern Africa.

Immediately arise questions about how fast it spreads the new variant, its ability to circumvent some of the protection provided by vaccines, and what to do about it.

There is a lot of speculation, but very few clear answers.

That uncertainty has contributed to a falling share prices in various markets. In Asians, the Nikkei index in Tokyo and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong fell more than 2%. Among the most affected are actions in travel-related businesses.

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So what do we know?

The variant is called B.1.1.529 and the World Health Organization (WHO) is likely to give it a Greek name (like the alpha and delta variants) on Friday.

It is difficult to say if the new mutation will cause greater severity, but some analyzes suggest that there is a “possibility” that it will have a “different impact” on those infected.

We also know that it has mutated a lot. Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Innovation and Response to Epidemics in South Africa, said there was an “unusual constellation of mutations” and that it was “very different” from other variants that have circulated.

“This variant surprised us. It has a great leap in evolution and many more mutations than we expected ”, said.

(Photo: PA MEDIA)

In a press conference, Professor de Oliveira said that there was 50 mutations overall and more than 30 in the spike protein, which is the goal of most vaccines and the key that the virus uses to open the door to the cells of our body.

Getting even closer to the receptor-binding domain (which is the part of the virus that makes the first contact with cells in our body), it has 10 mutations compared to just two for the delta variant.

This level of mutation most likely came from a single patient who was unable to defeat the virus.

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Many mutations are not automatically a bad thing. It is important to know what those mutations are actually doing.

But the concern is that this virus is now radically different from the original that emerged in Wuhan, China. That means the vaccines, which were designed with the original strain, may not be as effective.

Some of the mutations have been seen before in other variants, which gives an idea of ​​their role in this variant.

Graph of how the variants appearGraph of how the variants appear

For example, N501Y appears to facilitate the spread of the coronavirus. Others make it difficult for antibodies to recognize the virus and can make vaccines less effective.

Professor Richard Lessells, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said: “We are concerned that this virus may have improved transmissibility, an improved ability to spread from person to person, but it could also bypass parts of the immune system. “

There have been many examples of variants that looked scary on paper, but came to nothing. The Beta variant was at the top of the experts’ concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best variant for escaping the immune system. But in the end it was the delta, which spread the fastest, that took over the world.

We don’t know how fast this new variant spreads. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

It’s too early to draw conclusions

Scientific studies in the laboratory will give a clearer picture, but the answers will come more quickly by monitoring the virus in the real world.

It is still too early to draw clear conclusions, but there are already signs that are causing concern.

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Has been 77 fully confirmed cases in Gauteng province in South Africa, four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong (which is directly related to travel from South Africa).

However, there are indications that the variant has spread even further.

This variant seems to give outlandish results on standard tests, which can be used to track down the variant without doing a full genetic analysis.

That suggests that 90% of the cases in Gauteng can already be this variant and “may already be present in most provinces” of South Africa.

But this does not tell us if it spreads faster than delta, if it is more severe, or to what extent it can evade the immune protection that comes from vaccination.

It also doesn’t tell us how well the variant will spread in countries with vaccination rates much higher than South Africa’s 24%, although large numbers of people in the country have had Covid.

So for now we have a variant that raises important concerns despite the huge holes in our knowledge about her.

The lesson of the pandemic is that you can’t always wait until you have all the answers.

It may interest you:

* Covid: the WHO’s concern about the increase in cases and deaths in Europe
* The first known case of coronavirus was that of a vendor in the Wuhan market, says scientist
* Covid-19 could decrease pain perception in cancer patients

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