Scientists in South Africa said they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers. The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month. “Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference. The variant, which goes by the scientific lineage number B.1.1.529, “has a very high number of mutations,” he said, expressing hope that the World Health Organization will give it a Greek name on Friday. “It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he said. The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he added.
“The new variant has a constellation of new mutations,” said Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the delta variant in the country. “This new variant has many, many more mutations, including more than 30 to the spike protein that affects transmissibility,” he said. “We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.” De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
The WHO said it is “closely monitoring” the reported variant and is expected to convene a technical meeting on Friday to determine if it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”. “Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” the WHO added. South African health minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”. The country’s daily number of infections hit 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 earlier in the month. Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted a fourth wave to hit South Africa starting around the middle of December, buoyed by travel ahead of the festive season.
In the wake of multiple cases of new Covid-19 variant B.1.1529 reported in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong, the Centre has asked states to conduct “rigorous screening and testing” of all international travellers coming from and transiting through these countries.
The new variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus has serious public health implications for the country, the health ministry said, especially at a time when visa restrictions have been relaxed and international travel is opening up.
The Centre has also asked states and UTs to closely track and test the contacts of international travellers from these countries. Botswana has so far reported three cases, South Africa six and Hong Kong one case.
“lt is therefore imperative that all international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries, (they are part of the “at risk” country category of international travellers coming to lndia) and also including all other “at risk” countries indicated in the revised guidelines for international arrivals issued by this ministry dated 11.11.2021, are subjected to rigorous screening and testing, as per health ministry guidelines,” health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter to all states on Thursday. Bhushan urged states to ensure that samples of travellers turning positive are sent to INSACOG genome sequencing laboratories promptly as per the ministry guidelines.
The state surveillance officers have also been asked to establish close coordination with their designated or tagged genome sequencing labs for expediting results of genomic analysis, to ensure necessary public health measures may be undertaken by the states and UTs in case presence of variants of concern is reported.