New COVID variant B.1.1.529 leaves scientists worried; what you need to know

New COVID variant B.1.1.529 leaves scientists worried; what you need to know

New COVID variant B.1.1.529 leaves scientists worried; what you need to know

The discovery of a new variant with over 30 spike mutations in South Africa has left the scientists worried and several of them have warned that the new variant has a combination of mutations that can possibly cause the virus to evade immunity.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted the details of the variant on social media on Thursday, noting that the “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)," he wrote.

Where was the new variant found?

The B.1.1.529 variant was first spotted in Botswana. So far, only 10 cases have been confirmed by genomic sequencing.

What countries has it been found in?

The first cases of the variant were confirmed in Botswana on 11 November and three days later South Africa confirmed a case of the same variant. The only other country to have officially recorded the variant is Hong Kong where 36-year-old man who flew to South Africa and stayed there from 22 October to 11 November, tested on 13 November for this particular variant while in quarantine.

What makes it more transmissible?

The mutation P681H seen in the new variant has also been reported in Alpha, Mu, some Gamma, and B.1.1.318 variants. The new variant also carries the N679K mutation which has been reported in many other variants.

The new variant also carries a mutation called N501Y which has been reported in other variants of concern. Studies have shown that this mutation helps the variant be more transmissible. It also allows the virus to readily bind to the human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors.

It also carries the P681H mutation, one of the commonly identified spike mutations in SARS CoV-2, which enhances the transmissibility of the virus. The D614G mutation which has been reported to increase virus infectivity was also seen in the new variant.

Why scientists are worried

The scientists have warned that this variant carries an “extremely high number” of mutations may drive further waves of disease by evading the body’s defences. While only 10 cases have surfaced in three countries so far, but news has sparked panic among people and experts, who claim that the mutations may help the coronavirus evade immunity.

Did it evolve from chronic infection in AIDS patient?

According to a report in Hindustan Times, Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director at UCL Genetics Institute, warned that the variant is likely to have evolved during a chronic infection in an immunocompromised person.

In a press release by Science Media Centre, Balloux said the immunocompromised person was possibly an untreated HIV/AIDS patient.

“It is difficult to know what to make of the carriage of both P681H and N679K. It is a combination we see only exceptionally rarely. I suspect it is generally not ‘stable’, but it might be so, in combination with other mutations/deletions,” the expert was quoted as saying in the report.

Total COVID-19 variants

According to World Health Organisation, only four variants of the coronavirus are designated as variants of concern namely Alpha (lineage B.1.1.7, the so-called ‘UK variant’), Beta (lineage B.1.351, the so-called ‘South Africa variant’), Gamma (lineage P.1, the so-called ‘Brazil variant’) and Delta (lineage B.1.617.2).

‘High amount of spike mutations’

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted the details of the variant on social media on Friday, noting that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies)”. According to one report, it has 32 mutations in the spike protein, which may help the virus evade immunity.