The World Health Organization has called an urgent special meeting to learn more about a new variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly in South Africa.
WHO will meet on Friday to discuss what the variant – called B.1.1.529 – could mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said.
“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus, ”said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19.
The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong.
Britain’s Health Security Agency said no cases of the variant had yet been detected in Britain and was in contact with South African colleagues about their data.
However, Britain has already decided to place South Africa under Red List travel restrictions. It will ban flights from six African countries, including South Africa, from midday Friday (local time).
Israel has also imposed travel bans from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Aswatini.
The new variant, which continues to spread in small numbers, worries health officials because it has double the number of mutations in the Delta variant, some of which are associated with the evasion of the immune response.
The British HSA said it has a spike protein that is dramatically different from that of the original coronavirus, which the COVID vaccines are based on.
It has mutations that may elude the immune response generated by previous infection and vaccination, as well as mutations associated with increased infectivity.
Laboratory studies are needed to assess the likelihood that the mutations will result in significantly reduced vaccine effectiveness, the scientists said.
UK government sources said the variant posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccination program, which we must protect at all costs.”
Earlier Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the COVID-19 variant in around 100 specimens and were working to understand its potential implications. Most cases are in Gauteng province.
Scientists say up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng could be due to B.1.1.529.
“Although the data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications might be,” the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases said in a statement. .
The variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are of concern because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, the scientists said.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose more stringent restrictions in response to the variant.
South Africa was the first country to detect the beta variant last year.
Beta is one of only four labeled “of concern” by the WHO because it has been shown to be more contagious and vaccines work less well against it.
The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant and still only accounts for a small percentage of the genomes sequenced in recent months.