India raises alert as new, heavily-mutated coronavirus variant is found
A new variant of the coronavirus has been found in South Africa and several other countries. Scientists say the heavily-mutated strain seems to be spreading quickly and may possibly evade prior immunity. The World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to convene an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the variant's concerning rise. Here's what you need to know about it.
Why does this story matter?
Currently known as B.1.1.529, the new strain is the most heavily mutated version of the coronavirus discovered so far. This raises serious concerns that the variant may trigger wider and severe outbreaks in South Africa or elsewhere. Experts say there are already signs that the strain spreads fast and possibly evades immunity. They, however, add it is too early to draw clear conclusions.
When and where did it originate?
The B1.1.529 variant was first identified in Botswana on November 11. However, South Africa has so far reported the most number of cases at 22, according to the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). NICD said the cases are "increasing quickly" in three South African provinces. Two people have been found infected in Hong Kong, too, one of whom traveled from South Africa.
How dangerous is the strain?
The variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, said Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, the Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. On the ACE2 receptor, the strain carries 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta has two. Scientists are working to find out the effectiveness of vaccines against this variant.
'A big jump in evolution'
"This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta," said Dr. de Oliveira.
Did it evolve in an HIV/AIDS patient?
Francois Balloux, the Director at UCL Genetics Institute, warned the variant likely evolved from a chronic infection in 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."
UK bans flights from 6 African nations
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has banned flights from six African countries in view of the new variant. They are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe. All six have been added to the country's "red list," meaning UK residents returning home from these countries will have to undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
WHO team's meet on Friday
A WHO technical team will meet on Friday and decide if the new variant should be designated a variant of "interest" or of "concern." A letter of the Greek alphabet, likely to be Nu, will also be assigned to it. "Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study," the health body said.
Indian Health Ministry issues warning
Meanwhile, India's Union Health Ministry on Thursday asked states to rigorously screen and test travelers coming from or transiting through the three countries where the variant has been identified. "This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions," Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said.