“This variant surprised us, it has a big evolutionary leap, a lot more mutations than expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the sequencing platform at research and innovation from KwaZulu-Natal.
The B1.1.529 variant has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with over 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, de Oliveira said. On the ACE2 receptor, the protein that helps create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells – the new variant has 10 mutations. By comparison, the Beta variant has three, the Delta variant has two, Mr de Oliveira said.
Showing mutations that could resist neutralization, scientists still do not yet know how effective existing vaccines will be against the new variant. The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate escape of immunity, said Richard Lessells, infectious disease specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. .
“All of these things make us fear that this variant has not only improved transmissibility, therefore spread more efficiently, but may also bypass parts of the immune system and the protection that we have in our immune system,” said M said Lessells.
The new variant has been widely detected in young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of people aged 18 to 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.
While cases of the new variant are mostly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the capital Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools are closing and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, says Phaahla.
Alexandra E. Petri contributed reports.