Heavily-mutated Covid strain triggers emergency response — Analysis

World Health Organization (WHO), after discovering a new coronavirus strain that has significant numbers of mutations, called for a special emergency meeting. This was to determine how best to deal with the evolving variant.

The global health body’s technical head on Covid-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, announced the upcoming meeting on Thursday during a live-streamed Q&A session, saying experts would gather Friday to talk about the new strain, dubbed B.1.1.529, which has now been detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.

“Our technical advisory group on virus evolution is discussing this with our colleagues in South Africa,”Van Kerkhove added that the variant is a new one. “We’re also meeting again tomorrow.”

We’re calling a special meeting to discuss this, not to cause alarm, but just because we have the system in place, we can bring these scientists together and discuss ‘what does it mean?’

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The WHO official said that not much information is available about this new strain. He also noted that less than 100 complete genomic sequences were currently available. However, it is known that this variant is already observed to be able to produce a variety of sperm. “a large number of mutations,”This raises questions regarding the impact of this on diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. Van Kerkhove stated that it may take many weeks for any information to be gained about how to immunize against the B.1.1.529 strain as researchers continue to investigate.

The WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, pointed to “a number of worrying mutations in the spike protein”refers to South African’s variant. 

A professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, Ravi Gupta – who had previously warned of the possibility of “super mutant” Covid variants – also said his lab work identified two specific mutations in the new strain that could increase infectivity and reduce antibody recognition. 

Reacting to the WHO’s comments on the new Covid strain, the British government temporarily suspended flights to six African nations, with Sajid Javid, secretary of state for health and social care, calling the move a precautionary measure. Israel too said that they would ban South African travelers and those from other continent countries.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, told the Financial Times that up to 90% of new infections in the country’s Gauteng region – which encompasses Johannesburg, a major city – involved the new variant. He stated that he had expressed concern to the WHO prior to its emergency meeting. “the key question to be answered is what exactly is the effect on the vaccines.”

READ MORE: Time to consider mandatory jabs in Europe, WHO official says

However, despite the concerns, Van Kerkhove voiced some optimism during Thursday’s question and answer session, saying the fact the variant was detected is itself a good sign, as “it means we have a system in place”To quickly recognize and address new strains that could be dangerous. 

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