A new Covid variant first detected in Botswana has made its way to South Africa, according to scientists, and has been added to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) monitoring list.
The variant, which has been designated as B.1.1.529 by the WHO, exhibits a large number of mutations, according to researchers, sparking concerns about its transmissibility, severity and potential vaccine resistance.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) issued an alert on Thursday (25 November), confirming that the variant has been detected in 22 cases in the country, with more to be confirmed as sequencing results come out.
The NICD warned that detected cases of the new variant and the number of people testing positive are both increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, the North West and Limpopo.
“It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa,” said Professor Adrian Puren, NICD acting executive director. “Although the data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be.”
He assured the public that the situation was being monitored and that the public would be kept up to date. Provincial health authorities remain on high alert and are prioritising the sequencing of positive samples, he said.
“Regardless of the emergence of new Covid-19 variants, the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions remains unchanged, and the public are urged to be responsible,” the NICD said.
This includes getting vaccinated, wearing masks, practising healthy hand hygiene and maintaining social distance protocols.
According to a virologist at the Imperial College London, Tom Peacock, the new variant was initially detected in three cases in Botswana. It has seen been detected in South Africa, and one case in Hong Kong, where the patient had travelled from South Africa.
“Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply. Also, the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern,” he said.
Health minister Joe Phaahla said the health department was briefed on the new variant on Thursday morning.
In a briefing held by the health department, professor Tulio de Oliviera said the new variant is a cause for concern for South Africa and may already be present in most provinces. The variant will likely get a Greek name – often reserved for Covid variants of interest or concern.
Echoing the findings from Peacock, de Oliviera said the main concern with the variant is that it has a large number of mutations which have sparked concerns over vaccine resistance and transmissibility.
However, he said that, while some predictions can be made, the full significance of the variant remains uncertain.
Local authorities have requested an urgent meeting with the WHO, which is expected to take place on Friday (26 November).