With news that a novel variant of COVID out of South Africa is highly mutated, several countries, including the U.K. and Israel, have initiated travel bans from the region. The unusual nature of this variant and the reported amount of mutations mean that scientists don’t know how well the present crop of vaccines will work against it.
First recorded in Botswana, the new version of this coronavirus quickly spread to neighboring South Africa, although cases have been recorded as far afield as Hong Kong. What has scientists troubled is that the B.1.1.529 variant – likely to be assigned the Greek letter “Nu” – has at least ten significant mutations, compared to the Delta variant, which had only two. This rise in mutation points suggests that current treatments and vaccines may be less effective.
The World Health Organization is due to meet Friday, November 26, to determine if Nu should be classified as a variant of interest.
Cause for Concern?
Both the United Kingdom and Israel have already introduced travel bans from South Africa, with those who have recently arrived from the region being asked to take tests. The European Union is following suit by proposing that all air travel be barred from southern Africa, likely including Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
At present, it is unknown whether this variant is more contagious or more dangerous than existing variants, or whether the available vaccines will effectively fight it. However, despite the lack of data, many scientists are concerned.
Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the WHO, said, “What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations … And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves. So right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics, our therapeutics, and vaccines.”
Sajid Javid, the U.K. health secretary, noted that this new mutation “may be more transmissible” than the dominant Delta strain and that “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective.” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hinted that his country is very close to declaring a state of emergency.
While many will be satisfied that shutting down travel between countries will work as a preventative measure, the rise in mutations both nationally and internationally was expected by some. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R) warned recently that “Vaccinating into a pandemic could be dangerous. I mean, you could have variants produced that evade the vaccine; I think maybe that’s what’s happening with delta.”
In May, French virologist and Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier put forward a controversial opinion that vaccinating while the pandemic was ongoing would lead to multiple new variants as the virus sought to evade the vaccine’s effect.
After the World Health Organization has met, the next steps will be a concerted effort to find out the full facts. In a Thursday news conference, South African health officials noted that they had discovered the variant amid a fast-growing cluster of cases in the Gauteng region. It is as yet unknown how severe this new mutation is, nor whether it is as contagious as the Delta variant.
Only ten cases have so far been genomically sequenced. Although cases of COVID are presently rising in South Africa, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) does not currently believe the rise is due to the new variant.
The NICD wrote, “Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be.”
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.