New variant showing a “big leap in evolution” detected in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG – A worrying new variant of the coronavirus, whose mutations signal a “big leap in evolution,” is leading to an increase in new Covid-19 infections in South Africa, scientists said Thursday.

In the past 36 hours after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub, Gauteng Province, scientists have detected the B1.1.529 variant. So far, 22 positive cases have been identified in South Africa, according to the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

Since the start of the pandemic, a number of variations have appeared. An underlying concern about the new variants is whether they will hamper progress against the pandemic or limit the effectiveness of the vaccine. South African scientists will meet with the technical team of the World Health Organization on Friday, where the authorities will assign a letter of the Greek alphabet to it.

Botswana’s health ministry confirmed in a statement that four cases of the new variant had been detected in people who were all fully vaccinated. All four were tested before their planned trip. A sample was also detected in Hong Kong, carried by a traveler from South Africa, South African scientists said.

With more than 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is far lower than that of Germany, where new cases are causing a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises concerns that it is highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm bells early.

“This variant surprised us, it has a big evolutionary leap, a lot more mutations than expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the sequencing platform at research and innovation from KwaZulu-Natal.

The B1.1.529 variant has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with over 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, de Oliveira said. On the ACE2 receptor, the protein that helps create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells – the new variant has 10 mutations. By comparison, the Beta variant has three, the Delta variant has two, Mr de Oliveira said.

Showing mutations that could resist neutralization, scientists still do not yet know how effective existing vaccines will be against the new variant. The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate escape of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. .

“All of these things are what makes us fear that this variant has not only improved transmissibility, therefore spreads more efficiently, but may also be able to bypass parts of the immune system and the protection that we have in our system. immune, ”Mr. Lessells said.

The new variant has been widely detected in young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of people between the ages of 18 and 34 are vaccinated, said Dr Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.

While cases of the new variant are mostly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the capital Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools are closing and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, says Phaahla.

Alexandra E. Petri contributed reports.

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