Scientists in South Africa have detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, adding it was responsible for a surge in infections.
Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday that the new discovery, called B.1.1529, carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous variants.
“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” South African health minister Joe Phaahla said.
The new variant has not been named by the World Health Organisation yet though it has been named as ‘variant of concern’ by virologist Tulio de Oliveira. He said, “the variant has a very high number of mutations.” The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa. So far, multiple cases of the variant have been reported, including in Botswana (3 cases), South Africa (6 cases) and Hong Kong (1 case).
The emergence of a news variant happens at a time when Covid-19 trends were declining across the world and countries were lifting travel restrictions.
The new variant is clearly a wake-up call as Covid cases in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.
Responding to the sudden spike and new variant, Britain has banned all travel from the country and five other southern African nations. Scientists have warned that the variant could be more infectious than Delta and more resistant to current vaccines.
In the wake of multiple cases of new Covid-19 variant B.1.15 reported in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong, the government in India has asked states to conduct rigourous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through the three affected countries.
New Covid variants have kept scientists on tenterhooks as they pose newer threats and do not respond to vaccinations. As seen in the past, an increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.
Here’s a list of all Covid-19 variants found across the world:
Delta variant (B.1.617.2) was first identified in India. It spreads more easily than other variants and may cause more severe cases than the other variants. So far, vaccines have been proven effective against Delta varint and vaccine breakthrough infections are expected. Infections happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, even with the Delta variant. Early evidence has suggested that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant can spread the virus to others. All FDA-approved or authorized vaccines are particularly effective against severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
Delta variant cause the second and the most deadly Covid-19 wave in early 2021 as most of the population was unvaccinated. The shots also reduce the risk of infection. But they do not completely eliminate all risk. The advice to avoid infection remains the same for all strains: wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a face covering in crowded places and be vigilant about ventilation.
The variant AY.4.2, is also known as ‘Delta Plus’ variant. A mutation of Delta variant, which was first found in India, this variant has been followed by the World Health Organization (WHO) since July and is present now in dozens of countries. Most of the cases have occurred in the U.K. but even there, it’s only present in about 6% of the cases. In the United States, it’s been present in less than 1% of cases.
The Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant found in late 2020, experts noted gene mutations were first found in Covid-19 cases seen in people in southeastern England. This variant has since been reported in other countries, including the US scientists estimate that these mutations could make the virus up to 70% more transmissible, meaning it could spread more easily. Some research has linked this variant to a higher risk of death, but the evidence isn’t strong.
The mutation on the Alpha variant is on the spike protein, which helps the virus infect its host. This is what Covid-19 vaccines target, and it makes antibodies against many parts of the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that a single new mutation in the Alpha variant will make the vaccine less effective.
The Beta variant (B.1.351) and other variants of the virus have been found in other countries, including South Africa and Nigeria. The Beta variant appears to spread more easily than the original virus but doesn’t seem to cause worse illness.
Another variant Lambda (C.37) sparked headlines this summer after the WHO noted its rapid spread in South American countries, including Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. The WHO reported that “lambda has been associated with substantive rates of community transmission in multiple countries, with rising prevalence over time concurrent with increased COVID-19 incidence” and that more investigations would be carried out into the variant.
The Gamma variant ( (P.1)) was first found in January 2021 by experts in people from Brazil who had traveled to Japan. By the end of that month, it was showing up in the U.S. The Gamma variant appears to be more contagious than earlier strains of the virus. And it may be able to infect people who’ve already had COVID-19. A report from Brazil confirms that a 29-year-old woman came down with this variant after an earlier coronavirus infection a few months before.