Health controls at Johannesburg airport. / REUTERS

This is why the new South African Covid variant could be dangerous

Spanish virologist Estanislao Nistal claims that, because the B.1.1.529 variant has a very large number of mutations, there is a higher risk of vaccine escape

ÁLVARO SOTO

A new variant of the Covid-19 virus has put the world on alert. First detected in South Africa, variant B.1.1.529 has an "extremely high" number of mutations that can make it more contagious and reduce the effect of vaccines on it. And it has already spread to five neighbouring countries.

Concern is also spreading and the World Health Organization (WHO) has convened an emergency meeting this Friday, 26 November, to decide whether "it should be designated as a variant of interest or a variant of concern."

What is known already?

The new variant appears to be behind the explosion of cases in South Africa, where the number of infections in the last month has multiplied by ten. "We can see that it has a very high potential for spread," said virologist Tulio de Oliveira, who works at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, where he discovered the previous variant linked to the country.

How many mutations does it have?

The Spanish virologist Estanislao Nistal says, “As far as we know, the variant has a very large number of mutations, around 50, of which 30 are found in the 'spike' protein and 10 in the receptor, which is where vaccines work. For this reason, there is the potential that this variant has a high vaccine escape risk."

How many cases have been detected?

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, chief epidemiologist at WHO, stresses that there is not much data on the new variant because there are "fewer than 100 complete genomic sequences available."

“It will take a few weeks to understand what impact this variant has. There is a lot of work going on. It is a variant that is being monitored. We will discuss whether it will become a variant of interest or concern and, if so, we will give it a Greek name, but it is something to watch out for,” Van Kerkhove pointed out.

Where has it been detected?

Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana, in addition to South Africa, have detected cases in recent days and this Friday, Israel announced that it had found another positive. “The variant discovered in the southern African states has been identified in Israel. This is a person who came from Malawi,” reported Israel’s Ministry of Health.

Will there be more variants?

The appearance of new variants is something that experts had warned about, mainly after the start of the vaccination campaign in Western countries. Scientists warned that if vaccines did not reach everyone, the chances of the virus mutating would multiply.