A new variant of Covid-19 has emerged, known as B.1.1529. The World Health Organization relies on the Greek alphabet to name new worrying variants, which means that B.1.1529 could possibly be called Nu, as this is the next available letter.
The variant derived from the B.1.1 line has an “incredibly high” number of mutations, experts say, with concerns that it is highly transmissible and effective in circumventing the body’s immune response.
B.1.1529 has 32 mutations in its spike protein. These include E484A, K417N, and N440K, which have been linked to helping the virus evade detection by antibodies.
Another mutation, N501Y, found in Spike protein, appears to increase the ability of the virus to enter our cells, making it more easily transmitted.
The variant was first spotted on November 11 in Botswana, where three cases have now been recorded.
In South Africa, where the first case was sighted on November 14th, 22 cases have now been recorded, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
More cases are expected to be confirmed in the country once sequencing results are in. The South African government announced on Thursday that many of the B.1.1.529 cases were in Gauteng province. It has also requested an urgent meeting with the WHO Technical Working Group on Covid.
Another case was identified in Hong Kong involving a 36-year-old traveler who was in South Africa from October 23 to November 11 and who tested positive for three days when he returned home.
Scientists have said the variant has more changes to its spike protein than anyone else they’ve seen, with the suggestion that it may have come from an immunocompromised person who had the virus with them for a long period of time, possibly from someone with undiagnosed HIV / AIDS.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said the variant mutations were in “an unusual constellation” that “appeared to have accumulated in a single outbreak.”
He explained that this suggests that it may have developed during “chronic infection in an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV / AIDS patient.”
So far, no cases of the variant have been recorded in the UK.
The spike proteins that coat the outside of the Covid virus allow it to attach to and invade human cells. The vaccines train the body to recognize and neutralize these spines, preventing the cells from becoming infected.
The 32 mutations detected in the spike protein of the new variant change the shape of this structure and make it problematic for the immune response induced by the vaccines.
These mutations can make the spike protein less visible to our antibodies. As a result, they are not as effective at neutralizing the virus, which can then slip by the immune system and cause infection.
Scientists have mixed opinions on whether or not we should be concerned about the latest variant.
Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, warned that the variant could be “of real concern” because of its 32 mutations in its spike protein.
However, said Prof. Balloux, there is “no reason to worry too much” at the moment.
On Twitter, Dr. Peacock that the variant “should be monitored very, very closely because of this terrible spike profile,” which could mean that it is more contagious than any other variant to date.
He said, “Exporting to Asia implies that this may be more common than sequences alone suggest.
“The extremely long branch length and the incredibly high number of spike mutations also suggest that this could be really worrying (likely escape of most known monoclonal antibodies).”
But Dr. Peacock said he “hopes” that the variant will turn out to be one of those “strange clusters” and that it won’t be as transferable as feared.
Meanwhile, Prof. Balloux said that “at this stage it is difficult to predict how transferable it might be”.
The professor stated, “For now it should be closely monitored and analyzed, but there is no need to worry too much unless it will become more common in the near future.”
Dr. Meera Chand, the Covid-19 Incident Director at the UK Health Authority, said the status of new Covid variants around the world is being constantly monitored on a random basis and that a small number of cases with “new mutation sets” are “not uncommon.”
She explained, “Since it is in the nature of viruses to mutate frequently and randomly, it is not uncommon for a small number of cases to occur with new sets of mutations. All variants that show signs of spread are quickly assessed. “