South African scientists warn new Botswana variant is likely to cause sudden national Covid wave

South African scientists warned today that the new Botswana Covid strain could spark a rise in the number of cases in the country as the World Health Organization said it called an emergency meeting tomorrow to investigate the troubling strain.

The national infection rate in South Africa has increased more than fivefold in the past week after the variant was first discovered in neighboring Botswana on November 11.

So far, about 100 cases of B.1.1.529, the scientific name, have been officially discovered.

But Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of Covid surveillance in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, told a hastily organized press conference today that it has been spotted in almost every corner of the country.

In total, it has been identified in three countries – the third is Hong Kong.

Scientists fear that the mutated strain is highly transmissible and may be better able to infect vaccinated people than the Indian ‘Delta’ variant.

Professor Oliveria admitted that experts were still “uncertain” about the impact of the variant on the epidemic in the country.

But he explained that the virus has five times more mutations at a specific part of the peak that antibodies bind to compared to Delta — meaning it may be better at infecting vaccinated people than the world-dominant strain.

Today’s shots train the immune system to recognize an older version of the spike, and many changes to this protein make it more difficult for the vaccinated people to recognize and fight the virus.

Alarms about the variant first went off yesterday after it was revealed it has 32 mutations and is the most evolved version of Covid to date.

But in a ray of hope, UK experts told MailOnline yesterday that the extensive mutations may work against the virus, rendering it “unstable”.

They said it likely emerged in an ongoing infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.

Professor Oliveira said he had requested an “urgent” meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) to address the emerging variant, which could be called “Now” in the coming days.

This graph shows the number of cases over time that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian 'Delta' variant (red).  It suggests that this mutant strain surpasses Delta.  But experts warn that Covid surveillance in South Africa isn't picking up all cases

This graph shows the number of cases over time that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red). It suggests that this mutant strain surpasses Delta. But experts warn that Covid surveillance in South Africa isn’t picking up all cases

The slide above shows the number of tests that picked up an SGTF mutation, marking variant B.1.1.529 of the dominant Indian 'Delta' variant.  It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading quickly in the country.  The slide was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows the number of tests that picked up an SGTF mutation, marking variant B.1.1.529 of the dominant Indian ‘Delta’ variant. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading quickly in the country. The slide was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows variants that have been identified per province in South Africa since October last year.  It suggests that B.1.1.529 is concentrated in Gauteng province.  This was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows variants that have been identified per province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests that B.1.1.529 is concentrated in Gauteng province. This was presented today at a South African government briefing

The above shows the test positivity rate - the proportion of tests that have picked up the virus - in Gauteng province.  This shows that there is an increase in the number of cases in the north of the province.  It is not clear if this can be powered by B.1.1.529

The above shows the test positivity rate – the proportion of tests that have picked up the virus – in Gauteng province. This shows that there is an increase in the number of cases in the north of the province. It is not clear if this can be powered by B.1.1.529

About 26 cases of the variant have now been detected worldwide, with the majority in South Africa.

But a lack of test analysis on continental Africa may mask the true spread of the variant.

What is the new ‘Botswana’ B.1.1.529 variant?

Do I have to worry?

Brits shouldn’t be ‘too concerned’ about the variant, scientists say.

The mutations suggest it is better able to evade vaccine-induced antibodies and more transmissible than other variants.

But this has yet to be backed up by lab testing or real-world data.

Where have the cases been identified?

So far, 26 cases have been discovered.

There are three in Botswana and 22 in South Africa.

A case has also been discovered in Hong Kong involving a 36-year-old man who had recently returned from the African continent.

South Africa’s outbreak is concentrated in Gauteng, Limpopo and the Northwest Province. Two of these registered a strong increase in the number of infections.

To date, no cases have been recorded in Great Britain. British officials said they were closely monitoring the situation.

Can the strain evade vaccine-induced immunity?

Scientists say the strain mutations suggest it is better able to evade vaccine immunity.

Some warned that it “looks like” it could be better at dodging stings than all other variants, including the South African “Beta” strain.

South African scientists say many infections in their country have been seen in people discovered in people believed to have immunity to vaccines or previous infections.

It carries mutations K417N and E484A, which are similar to those on the beta variant that made it more puncture resistant.

But it also has mutations N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variety, which may also make it more resistant.

B.1.1.529 also carries mutations P681H and N679K that are ‘rarely seen together’ on a specific part of the spike protein.

South African scientists say many infections have been discovered in people believed to have immunity to vaccines or previous infections.

The first case was identified in Botswana on November 11 and picked up the following day in South Africa.

On November 13, a case was also reported in Hong Kong involving a 36-year-old man who had returned from South Africa on November 11.

In South Africa, it has been officially spotted in the provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo and Northwest.

But Professor Oliveira warned that it could already be in “almost every province.”

dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London who first raised the alarm about its spread, described the combination of the variant’s mutations as “horrific.”

He warned that B.1.1.529 had the potential to be “worse than almost anything else.”

Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that the Botswana variant worried him because of its “very extensive” set of mutations.

He said: ‘This increases the risk of the vaccine escaping, but does not prove it will.

“The contagiousness of the species is also not clear, and this too will be influenced by the structure of the ear.”

The Botswana variant carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it more able to evade vaccines.

But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant, which have also been linked to antibody escape.

The variant also has mutations P681H and N679K that are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it even more resistant to punctures.

And the mutation N501Y that makes viruses more transmissible and which was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta, among others.

Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R, and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.

dr. Meera Chand, from the UKHSA, said: ‘The UK Health Security Agency, in collaboration with scientific bodies around the world, is constantly monitoring the status of SARS-CoV-2 variants as they emerge and develop globally.

“Since it is in the nature of viruses to mutate frequently and randomly, it is not uncommon for a small number of cases to arise with new series of mutations. Variants that show signs of spread are quickly assessed.’

It’s because Covid cases in the UK continued to rise, but deaths and hospitalizations still fell sharply.

An additional 43,676 cases have been registered in the past 24 hours, an increase of 14.1 percent from the 38,263 confirmed positive cases last Wednesday.

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