Covid-19: what we know about the new variant that has appeared in South Africa and that worries the authorities

B.1.1.529, already present in Botswana and even Hong Kong, is behind an “exponential” increase in cases in South Africa.

The name of the Greek alphabet has not yet been given. B.1.1.529, a new variant of Covid-19, has been detected in South Africa. Nothing surprising so far, the variants of the coronavirus have been legion since the beginning of the health crisis.

Except that this B.1.1.529 could well be added to the list of variants considered “of interest” or even of “concern” established by the World Health Organization in the light of the data recently communicated. Presented as potentially highly contagious and with multiple mutations, it may constitute the beginning of a very important epidemic resumption in the African country. A “great threat” that worries the health authorities.

• Potential for “very fast” spread

Variant B.1.1.529 has an “extremely high” number of mutations, according to a team from the KRISP research institute, backed by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, which had already discovered the Beta variant last year.

“We can see that it has a potential for very rapid spread,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told an online press conference chaired by the Ministry of Health.

• The efficacy of vaccines has not been established.

Metamorphoses of the initial virus can potentially make it more transmissible, to the point of making the variant dominant: this was the case with the Delta variant initially discovered in India, which according to the WHO reduced the effectiveness of vaccines to 40%. anti-Covid against the transmission of the disease.

At this point, South African scientists are unsure of the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new form of the virus.

“What worries us is that this variant could not only have a higher transmission capacity, but it could also bypass parts of our immune system,” said another researcher, Professor Richard Lessells.

• Already present abroad

To date, 22 cases have been reported, mostly affecting young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). Cases have also been reported in neighboring Botswana and Hong Kong, in a person returning from a trip to South Africa.

The WHO will meet on Friday to determine the dangerousness of the variant. “There are many variants, but some do not affect the progression of the epidemic,” John Nkengasong told a news conference from the African Union Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Africa).

But already, “the number of detected cases and the percentage of positive tests are increasing rapidly,” the NICD said in a statement, especially in the more populous province of Gauteng, which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg.

• A feared new wave in South Africa

Health structures must expect a new wave of patients in the coming days or weeks, the scientists warned.

South Africa, officially the most affected country on the continent by the virus, has seen a further increase in contamination in recent weeks. Attributed first to the Delta variant, this “exponential” increase is rather caused by the last mutated form, which poses “a great threat,” said Health Minister Joe Phaahla.

His appearance “reinforces the fact that this invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” he added.

South Africa has around 2.9 million Covid-19 cases, resulting in 89,600 deaths. More than 1,200 new cases were registered in 24 hours on Wednesday, compared to a hundred at the beginning of the month. Authorities fear a new wave of pandemics before the end of the year. Only 35% of eligible adults are fully immunized.

Hugues Garnier with AFP BFMTV reporter

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