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25th Nov 2021

Scientists warn of new covid variant with ‘extremely high’ number of mutations

Charlie Herbert

The variant was first spotted in Botswana

A new covid variant that carries an “extremely high number” of mutations could drive further waves of disease by evading the body’s defences, according to scientists.

Despite only 10 cases in three countries of the variant having been confirmed so far, researchers are concerned because of the number of mutations it has gone through.

The B.1.1.529 variant has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against covid, sparking fears that it could make it harder for the body’s immune system to attack the virus.

Three cases have been identified in Botswana where the variant was first spotted, with six cases confirmed in South Africa and another in Hong Kong in someone who had returned from South Africa.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, shared details of the covid variant on a genome-sharing website, writing that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.”

In a thread on Twitter, he explains that the variant “very, very much should be monitored” due to its “horrific spike profile.”

The first cases of B.1.1.529 were detected on November 11 in Botswana, with South Africa recording its first case three days later. The Guardian reports that the Hong Kong case was a 36-year-old man who had flown from the country to South Africa, where he stayed from October 22 to November 11. He returned to Hong Kong and tested negative but then tested positive on November 13.

Virologists in South Africa are concerned about the variant as cases rise in Pretoria and Johannesburg, where the new covid variant has already been detected.

Research at Cambridge University has found that two mutations of B.1.1.529 have increased infectivity and reduced antibody recognition.

Ravi Gupta, a professor in clinical microbiology at the university said: “It does certainly look a significant concern based on the mutations present.

“However, a key property of the virus that is unknown is its infectiousness, as that is what appears to have primarily driven the Delta variant. Immune escape is only part of the picture of what may happen.”

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