What is this new variant of COVID in South Africa?

South African scientists discovered a new version of the coronavirus this week, which they say is the reason for the recent surge in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It is not clear where exactly this new variant appeared, but it was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and has now been found on travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant is related to the “exponential rise” in cases in the past few days, although experts are still working to determine whether the new variant is really responsible.

From more than 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, the number of new cases per day in South Africa soared to 2,465 on Thursday. To explain the sudden increase in cases, scientists studied samples of the virus in the outbreak and discovered new variants.

In a statement on Friday, the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern” and named it “Omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

After convening a group of experts to evaluate the data, the United Nations health agency stated that compared with other variants, “preliminary evidence shows that this variant has an increased risk of re-infection.”

“In almost all provinces of South Africa, the number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing,” the WHO said.

Why are scientists worried about this new variant?

It appears to have a large number of mutations in the spike protein of the coronavirus-about 30-which may affect how easily it can spread to humans.

Sharon Peacock, who led the COVID-19 gene sequencing at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said that the data so far indicate that this new variant has mutations that are “consistent with enhanced transmission,” but said that “the importance of many mutations is not yet significant. knowledge.”

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described omicron as “the most severely mutated version of the virus we have ever seen,” including potentially worrying changes that are unprecedented in the same virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top US infectious disease doctor, said that US officials have scheduled a phone call with South African counterparts later on Friday to learn more, and said there is no sign that the variant has arrived in the US.

What is known and unknown about this variant?

Scientists know that omicron is genetically different from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but do not know whether these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that this mutation will cause more serious diseases.

It may take several weeks to determine whether omicron is more contagious and whether the vaccine is still effective against it.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said that current vaccines are “very unlikely” to not work, noting that they are effective against many other variants.

Although some genetic changes in omicron seem worrying, it is still unclear whether they pose a public health threat. Some of the previous variants, such as the beta variant, initially shocked scientists, but in the end they did not spread very far.

Peacock of Cambridge University said: “We don’t know whether this new variant can gain a foothold in the region where the delta is located.” .” So far, delta is by far the most important form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of the sequences submitted to the world’s largest public database.

How did this new variant come about?

Coronaviruses mutate as they spread, and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, usually disappear. Scientists monitor mutations in the COVID-19 sequence. These mutations may make the disease more transmissible or lethal, but they cannot be sure by looking at the virus alone.

Peacock said that this variant “may have evolved in people who are infected but unable to clear the virus, giving the virus a chance to genetically evolve.” This situation is similar to the alpha variant considered by experts-originally in England. Discovery-also occurs through mutations in immunocompromised people.

Are the travel restrictions imposed by some countries reasonable?

maybe. As of noon on Friday, passengers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-quarantine for 10 days. European Union countries also acted swiftly on Friday to ban air travel from Southern Africa. The United States also stated that it will ban non-US citizens from traveling from South Africa and seven other African countries from Monday.

Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London, said that in light of the recent rapid increase in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the area is “prudent” and will buy more time for the authorities.

Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes that early detection of the new variant may mean that the restriction measures now taken will be the first time that the delta variant Have a bigger impact when it appears

He said: “For delta, the terrible wave in India took a lot and weeks to figure out what happened, and delta has been sown in many parts of the world, and it’s too late to take any measures,” he said. “We may use this new variant earlier, so there may be time to do something.”

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