Frequent mutations, rapid spread: All about the new coronavirus variant in South Africa

Updated on Nov 26, 2021 11:55 AM IST

A recent surge in Covid-19 cases in South Africa seems to have been driven by a new variant of the coronavirus, which shows a high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people.

Healthcare workers assist patients being treated at a makeshift hospital run by charity organisation The Gift of the Givers, during the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak at Johannesburg in South Africa. (File Photo / REUTERS)
Healthcare workers assist patients being treated at a makeshift hospital run by charity organisation The Gift of the Givers, during the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak at Johannesburg in South Africa. (File Photo / REUTERS)
Written by Joydeep Bose | Edited by Meenakshi Ray, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

A new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa's most populous Guanteng district has sent governments around the world in a state of high alert – especially in view of the fact that the variant, according to infectious diseases experts, displays a high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people.

Although new coronavirus variants, including those with worrying mutations, often die out, scientists say sorting out their potential impact on the public health system will take time as the virus is still constantly evolving and there is always the risk of a mutant variation turning out to be more transmissible or deadly than previously assumed.

Also Read | Centre cautions states on new Covid variant found in South Africa

The new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, currently been identified as B.1.1.529, has also reportedly spread to Botswana and Hong Kong through travellers from South Africa.

Concerned by fears of a renewed wave of infection, the British government has already banned flights from South Africa and five other countries from the southern part of the continent. It also instructed anyone who recently arrived from those countries to take a Covid-19 test for good measure.

Tulio de Oliveira, a member of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa which has tracked the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant in the country, told the Associated Press that the “very high number of mutations” of the new coronavirus variant is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility.

“This new variant has many, many more mutations, including more than 30 to the spike protein that affects transmissibility,” de Oliveira was quoted as saying. "We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”

Although there is a noticeable “jump” in the evolution of the coronavirus with this variant, a silver lining is seen in the fact that it can at least be detected by a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Moreover, a team of scientists from seven South African universities is currently studying 100 whole genomes of the variant and they expect to come up with more findings in the coming days, de Oliveira added.

Speaking on the B.1.1.529 coronavirus variant, Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “It has a high number of spike mutations that could affect transmissibility and immune response.”

Notably, it is yet to be understood if the recent spike in coronavirus infections in South Africa was caused by the new variant, but there is “a high probability that this is the case”, according to Gupta.

The number of Covid-19 cases in South Africa had increased dramatically last week. After a period of recording relatively low transmission rates with just over 200 new confirmed cases daily, the country suddenly recorded more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday, the number of daily cases jumped to 2,465 – a rapid increase was driven by a surge in Pretoria and the surrounding Tshwane metropolitan area, specifically reported from student gatherings at universities.

“This is clearly a variant that we must be very serious about,” warned the Cambridge microbiology professor.

However, it is to be noted that to date, the Delta variant of the coronavirus remains the most infectious. It has crowded out other once-worrying variants including alpha, beta, and mu.

According to sequences submitted by countries worldwide to the world's biggest public database, more than 99 per cent of all global coronavirus cases can be attributed to the Delta variant.

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