Covid-19: what we know about the new variant that has appeared in South Africa and which worries the authorities

B.1.1.529, already present in Botswana and even in Hong Kong, is behind an “exponential” increase in cases in South Africa.

It has not yet been named after the Greek alphabet. B.1.1.529, a new variant of Covid-19, has been detected in South Africa. Nothing surprising so far, variants of the coronavirus have been legion since the start of the health crisis.

Except that this B.1.1.529 could very well join the list of variants deemed “of interest” or even that of “worrying” established by the World Health Organization in the light of recently communicated data. Presented as potentially very contagious and with multiple mutations, it can constitute the beginnings of a very important epidemic resumption in the African country. A “major threat” of which the health authorities are concerned.

• A potential for “very fast” propagation

The B.1.1.529 variant has an “extremely high” number of mutations, according to a team from the KRISP research institute, backed by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, which had already discovered the Beta variant last year.

“We can see that it has a potential for very rapid spread,” said virologist Tulio de Oliveira, during a online press conference chaired by the Ministry of Health.

• The efficacy of vaccines not established

The metamorphoses of the initial virus can potentially make it more transmissible, to the point of making the variant dominant: this was the case with the Delta variant initially discovered in India, and which according to the WHO reduced the effectiveness of vaccines to 40%. anti-Covid against the transmission of the disease.

At this point, South African scientists are unsure of the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new form of the virus.

“What concerns us is that this variant might not only have an increased transmission capacity, but also be able to bypass parts of our immune system,” said another researcher, Professor Richard Lessells.

• Already present abroad

To date, 22 cases have been reported, mostly affecting young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). Cases have also been reported in neighboring Botswana and Hong Kong, on a person returning from a trip to South Africa.

The WHO is to meet on Friday to determine the dangerousness of the variant. “There are many variants but some do not affect the progression of the epidemic,” said John Nkengasong at a press conference, from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the African Union ( Africa CDC).

But already, “the number of cases detected and the percentage of positive tests are increasing rapidly,” NICD said in a statement, especially in the most populous province of Gauteng, which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg.

• A dreaded new wave in South Africa

Health structures must expect a new wave of patients in the coming days or weeks, the scientists warned.

South Africa, officially the most affected country on the continent by the virus, has seen a further rise in contamination in recent weeks. First attributed to the Delta variant, this “exponential” increase is rather caused by the last mutated form, which represents “a major threat”, said the Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla.

Its appearance “reinforces the fact that this invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable,” he added.

South Africa has around 2.9 million cases of Covid-19, resulting in 89,600 deaths. More than 1,200 new cases in 24 hours were recorded on Wednesday, against a hundred at the beginning of the month. The authorities fear a new wave of pandemic by the end of the year. Only 35% of eligible adults are fully immunized.

Hugues Garnier with AFP BFMTV reporter

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