What We Know So Far About the New Variant of COVID-19 Raising Alarms Globally
SARS-CoV-2, a new strain of the virus that was first identified in South Africa has raised alarms among health professionals around the globe. This is leading to travel restrictions and fears about its resistance to vaccines.
Researchers in South Africa conducting genetic analysis of COVID-19 virus cases determined that a new variant, B.1.1.529, had been found in cases in South Africa, Botswana, and a traveler who had traveled from South Africa to Hong Kong, the country’s health minister announced on Nov. 25. Belgian officials announced the discovery of the European variant the next day.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to the White House and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN U.S. researchers will be speaking with their South African colleagues “to find out scientist to scientist to exactly what is going on.”
This is why this variant is so alarming
The variant is particularly alarming because of the 30 mutations that South African researchers reported on the spike protein. This is the primary target for vaccines and other drug therapies. Researchers are now concerned about the ability of existing vaccines to prevent disease from being affected by the new protein. Scientists will be trying to find out how quickly the variant spreads and whether vaccine protection can be used against it.
Scientists have confirmed that vaccines are still effective in protecting against serious diseases. They have also helped lower the number of deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19. But large numbers of people around the world still aren’t vaccinated, either because they can’t access doses, or are hesitant to get immunized. This results in a constant stream of infections that give the virus new possibilities to mutate. Experts have cautioned public health officials about new varieties of vaccines.
What is the world reacting to?
Until researchers learn more about the latest variant, health officials and political leaders aren’t taking any chances, as the world prepares for a busy holiday travel season. The U.K. immediately banned flights from six African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe — and instituted a mandatory 10-day quarantine for any travelers entering the U.K. from those countries. U.K. health minister Sajid Javid said the variant is of “huge international concern.”
Belgian health officials said that one instance of the variant was found in a case in which an unvaccinated person had traveled from abroad. As a precaution, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden said in a statement that flights from South African nations “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.” Cases in the bloc have been spiking in recent weeks due to low vaccination rates and greater density of people in public areas.
Researchers in the U.S. will first focus on obtaining more information about the molecular characteristics of the virus. This will enable them to create a test that can look for it in this country. They will also challenge it in the laboratory with antibodies from people who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in order to see if they continue to neutralize its effects.
A World Health Organization working group is scheduled to meet on Nov 26 to assess the variant, which it currently designates as a “variant under monitoring.” The group will determine if the new version of the virus is concerning enough to re-categorize it, in which case it would be labelled with a Greek letter designation as previous variants of concern have been.