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New South Africa-based, heavily mutated version of COVID-19 causing concern

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Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2021. 8:13 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: COVID-19 appears to be in retreat across most of the world, except for parts of Europe and Asia, but according to the BBC, a new, worrisome variant originating in South Africa is causing concern.

Variant B.1.1.529, likely to be given a Greek codename by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, is heavily mutated to the point of being “horrific” in the words of one scientist. At present, there have been 77 fully confirmed cases in Gauteng province in South Africa, four cases in Botswana, and one in Hong Kong (which is directly linked to travel from South Africa), with hints of further spread.

The questions confounding researchers include how quickly this new variant spreads, its ability to bypass protection given by current vaccines, and what should be done about it.

One scientist described as many as 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells. Ten of these variations are located on the receptor-binding domain (that’s the part of the virus that makes first contact with our body’s cells). This level of mutation has most likely come from a single patient who was unable to beat the virus.

Previous mutations, such as the Beta variant was at the top of people’s concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best at escaping the immune system. But in the end, it was the faster-spreading Delta that took over the world.

The new variant of concern appears radically different from other variants and to the original that emerged in Wuhan, China. That means vaccines, which were designed using the original strain, may not be as effective. Some of the mutations have been seen before in other variants, which gives some insight into their likely role in this variant – types that cause faster spread, disguise against antibodies, and other, newer, unknown varieties.

Scientific studies in the laboratory will yield a clearer picture, but answers will come more quickly from monitoring the virus in the real world.

Research suggests 90 percent of cases in Gauteng may already be this variant and it “may already be present in most provinces” in South Africa. But its rate of spread, severity and evasive capability against immunization is still unknown and there is as yet no way to predict its behavior.

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