WHO officials, surprised by new ‘heavily-mutated’ COVID variant, to meet: ‘flying at warp speed’

Officials with the World Health Organization are planning to meet on Friday to address a substantial increase in COVID-19 cases in South Africa being blamed on a new variant of the virus.

South African Minister of Health Joe Phaahla identified the new variant — B.1.1.529 — adding that it appears to be very contagious to younger people, according to the BBC.

The report also said that this new variant appears to also be the most heavily mutated thus far in the pandemic, with BBC health correspondent James Gallagher writing that one scientist has described it as “horrific.”

Gallagher added that the WHO meeting will most likely include giving the variant a new Greek code name, following in the pattern of the delta variant.

“This variant did surprise us. It has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for South Africa’s Epidemic Response and Innovation, in an interview with the BBC.

Meanwhile, Nature magazine noted that the variant was first noted and reported in Botswana in early November, adding that scientists are trying to see if it is capable of evading the body’s immune responses.

“We’re flying at warp speed,” said Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

She went on to say that there have been anecdotal reports of some vaccinated individuals getting reinfected, however, “at this stage, it’s too early to tell anything.”

“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, during a Thursday press conference, Nature reported.

“The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic,” he added.

Noted Nature: “Researchers spotted B.1.1.529 in genome-sequencing data from Botswana. The variant stood out because it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein — the SARS-CoV-2 protein that recognizes host cells and is the main target of the body’s immune responses. Many of the changes have been found in variants such as Delta and Alpha and are linked to heightened infectivity and the ability to evade infection-blocking antibodies.”

According to Aris Katzourakis, who studies the evolution of viruses at the University of Oxford, “A burning question is does it reduce vaccine effectiveness because it has so many changes.”

Some governments are already taking preventative measures. Britain, for instance, has banned flights from South Africa as well as five other countries in southern Africa. Also, anyone who has recently arrived from any of those nations will be required to undergo a COVID test.

Moore said that it is not clear what threat globally the new variant poses since the number of cases thus far in South Africa is low. “We’re in a lull,” she told Nature.

Katzourakis added: “We need to see what this virus does in terms of competitive success and whether it will increase in prevalence.”

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