A new, potentially vaccine-resistant Covid “super variant” has been identified in three different countries.
The B.1.1.529 strain, which has 32 spike mutations, has been detected in South Africa, Botswana Hong Kong. The total number of confirmed cases is currently only just in double figures.
But the number and variety of the virus’s spike mutations has raised concerns that it could re-infect fully-vaccinated populations.
The spread of the new strain, which is thought to have developed from an older variant called B.1.1., is being monitored by scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA)
The single case identified in Hong Kong was in a person who had recently travelled from South Africa, raising fears that the variant could now be spreading via other airline passengers.
The affected passenger had tested negative on his return to Hong Kong but then went on to test positive on 13 November while under quarantine at a hotel.
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College, said the new virus strain’s mutations were “horrific,” and he compared it to the currently-dominant Delta strain that has half as many mutations.
He wrote: “Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply. Also the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies).
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Acknowledging that with only ten known cases so far, it’s more a cause for careful monitoring just now rather than outright panic, Dr Peacock wrote: ”Worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about).”
There is a local spike in cases in South Africa, with confirmed infection rising from 312 on Monday to more than 860 on Tuesday, but as yet it’s too early to tell whether the new variant is driving the rise.
There are currently no known cases of the B.1.1.529 variant in the UK but officials and scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said they were monitoring and investigating the variant.
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