South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla says the variant is behind an ‘exponential’ increase in COVID infections. The new variant a cause for serious concern, stoking fears the country may face a potentially severe fourth wave that could spread internationally.
The variant newly discovered variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing.
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a news conference.
The variant “has a very high number of mutations”, he said. “It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he added.
It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he said.
Virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the variant in the country to date, said Anne von Gottberg, clinical microbiologist & head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the virus, which has also been detected in Botswana, according to a separate statement.
The new variant is likely to have evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, said in a statement published by the Science Media Centre. The world’s biggest number of HIV cases has complicated South Africa’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as immuno-compromised people can harbor the virus for longer, scientists say.