Science

Coronavirus: a new variant worries scientists

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B.1.1.529 was first identified in Botswana on November 11, 2021. Including South Africa and Hong Kong, this brings to 10 the number of global cases detected positive for this new variant of SARS-CoV-2. According to scientists, its genetic sequence contains 32 mutations that can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.

While the expansion of the 3rd dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for all is organized globally, concerns remain about the presence of new variants that could resist it. Among the novelties, the “Botswana cluster” (3 cases in this country) has been extended to South Africa (6 cases reported since November 14) and Hong Kong.

The case discovered in Hong Kong concerns a 36-year-old man who showed a negative PCR test before flying from Hong Kong to South Africa, where he remained from October 22 to November 11. He tested negative upon his return to Hong Kong, then tested positive on November 13 while in quarantine, according to The Guardian.

As a reminder, it is the Delta variant (B.617.2) that circulates most actively throughout the world, including in these three countries according to the latest WHO epidemiological report.

In England, authorities have placed under surveillance the Delta: AY.4.2 subvariant, detected in 11.8% of tests in England as of 5 November 2021. Several identified cases had recent travel histories (from at least 32 countries different). ). According to the authorities, this subvariant appears to have a slightly higher growth rate compared to the Delta strain, which may be due to a modification of the virus (transmissibility or immune escape) or to the epidemiological context. AY.4.2 was designated as a new variant under surveillance, as was the Mu variant.

Mutations that affect transmission and the immune system.

Variant B.1.1.529 has 32 mutations in the spike protein (S), the part of the virus that most vaccines use to boost the immune system against COVID-19. Mutations in protein S can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but they also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen. Logically, the antibodies produced by the body would recognize less the mutated protein S of the variant. On the other hand, it is possible that the large number of mutations accumulated at the same time, suggesting that the protein may have evolved during a chronic infection in a person with a weakened immune system.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted details of the new variant on a genome-sharing website, noting that the incredibly high number of mutations could be a real concern. Among these mutations is K417N, known to modify the shape of the S protein to allow the virus to partially escape antibodies. The N501Y mutation results in increased transmissibility, by acting on the binding of ACE2 enzymes in human cells.

Some South African virologists are already concerned, especially given the recent increase in cases in Gauteng, an urban area that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg, where cases of B.1.1.529 infection have been detected.

However, other scientists do not advance the quality of the variant’s transmissibility, such as Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge. “A key property of the virus that is not known is its infectivity, as this is what appears to have primarily motivated the Delta variant,” he informs The Guardian. For now, therefore, it should be closely monitored without too much concern, unless its frequency starts to increase in the coming weeks.

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