The first cases of this variant were reported in African Botswana on November 11, with six more confirmed in South Africa and one in Hong Kong from a 36-year-old local. He had a negative PCR test before flying to South Africa, where he was from October 22 to November 11. After returning to Hong Kong, the man was diagnosed with a new variant of the coronavirus, writes The Guardian.
The variant, named by British scientists B.1.1.529, has 32 mutations in the S-protein. Mutations can interfere with the virus’s ability to infect cells and multiply rapidly, blocking immune cells.
Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, spoke about the new strain, noting that “the incredible number of spike mutations are of great concern.” In a series of tweets, Peacock explained that the new variant is “not very actively transmitted” from person to person so far. Scientists will be watching the new option for any signs that it is gaining momentum and spreading more widely.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that two mutations in B.1.1.529 increase the infectivity of the virus and decrease the antibodies. “This is definitely a serious concern,” Gupta said. According to him, the key property of the virus is its increased infectivity. And “running away from immune defenses is only part of the picture of what can happen.”
According to Professor François Ballou, director of the Institute of Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, the large number of mutations in this variant seems to indicate that it could have developed during a chronic infection in a person with a weakened immune system. For example, in an untreated HIV patient. “It will be poorly recognized by neutralizing antibodies compared to the Alpha or Delta strains,” the scientist concluded.