What we know about B. 1.1.529, the new variant of COVID that causes countries to establish immediate border restrictions

South African health officials have identified a new variant of the coronavirus following an increase in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng, South Africa.

For weeks, the country registered about 200 new cases a day, but on Thursday, the number of new cases suddenly skyrocketed to 2,465. An estimated 90 percent of the 1,000 new cases detected through PCR testing on Wednesday in Gauteng were caused by the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa.

The new variant is called B. 1.1.529 and will likely be called Nu, the next available letter in the Greek alphabet naming system for coronavirus variants.

Very little is known about the new variant, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has moved quickly to hold an emergency session in Geneva to discuss the new variant.

Should we worry about the new variant?

There are less than 100 whole genome sequences available, a research tool used to reveal the complete composition of an organism’s DNA that helps scientists better understand disease and illness. The WHO commended South Africa for quickly reporting on the discovery of the new variant.

Scientists know that the new variant is genetically different from previous variants, including the Beta and Delta variants, but they don’t know if these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous.

“We don’t know much about this 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 have an impact on how the virus behaves, “said Maria van Kerkhove, epidemiologist and WHO technical leader on COVID-19.

But it is something to keep in mind, the organization warns.

This particular variant has a large number of mutations and the concern is the impact it may have on the behavior of the virus. Health experts are particularly concerned about its impact on the diagnosis, treatment, and efficacy of current vaccines to combat the new variant.

The world health agency is reminding people that the more the virus circulates, the more capable it is to change and adapt.

WHO has assembled a team to monitor variant and will work to determine whether it should be classified as a variant of interest (VOI) or a variant of concern (VOC). If it is designated as VOI or VOC, only then will WHO give it a Greek name.

The Delta variant remains by far the most communicable form of COVID; it accounts for more than 99 percent of the streams shared with the world’s largest public database.

Which countries have reported B. 1.1.529 cases?

It is unclear exactly where the new variant originated. It was first detected in South Africa and later identified in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

How are countries reacting?

The news of the emerging variant sent equity markets down around the world. Oil prices fell below $ 80 a barrel in early trading on Friday. Investors rushed to the safety of bonds and so-called stay-at-home companies like Zoom and Peloton, which posted record profits during pandemic locks and saw jumps in operations. It’s a total change from earlier this month, when travel companies and Airbnb showed signs of recovery as investors showed optimism that the world would soon reopen.

By Friday, at least 10 countries had announced measures on the new COVID-19 variant. The UK announced on Thursday that it would halt all travel to South Africa and several neighboring countries, with Israel, Singapore and other European countries following suit in a frantic effort to keep the new variant at bay.

WHO warns countries against hasty imposition of travel restrictions, urging them to take a “scientific and risk-based approach.”

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks, and even months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, the restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement.

When will we know more?

It will take us a few weeks to understand the impact of this variant, the WHO said.

The organization has assembled a team of researchers who are meeting to understand where these mutations have been identified and what kind of impact it will have on current COVID-19 therapeutic measures.

Speaking directly to the camera, van Kerkhove said: “Everyone who watches has a role to play in reducing transmission, as well as in protecting themselves against serious illness and death. So get vaccinated when you can, make sure you get the full cycle of your doses, and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and avoid passing that virus to someone else. ”

With files from the Associated Press.


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