Sunday, November 28

Coronavirus B.1.1.529: How dangerous is the upgraded virus variant from Africa?

KIt’s been a week since the Sars-Cov-2 variant B.1.1.529 from southern Africa became known. The World Health Organization (WHO) is looking at her for the first time today, Friday. And yet the variant already protrudes far beyond the hundreds of other officially listed pathogens. The reason: B.1.1.529, first described in Botswana, contains more than thirty mutations on the virus “spines” alone, i.e. the spike proteins on the surface with which the pathogen gains access to the human body. However, it is not just the number, but above all the combination of mutations that worries many virologists. And: In South Africa, the new variant attracted attention due to its rapid spread.

Joachim Müller-Jung

Editor in the features section, responsible for the “Nature and Science” section.

In the Gauteng region with the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, the number of newly registered infections has risen exponentially and already accounts for 90 percent of the most recently discovered viruses. However, with around a thousand B.1.1.529 genomes recorded, the total number is still relatively small. With the new gene sequencing work, scientists are now discovering new variants much faster. It could therefore also be a “founder effect” – that is, that the viruses have so far mainly spread in areas with few people who have not been vaccinated.

New temporary entry restrictions

In any case, it is not yet clear whether the new variant is actually more dangerous than Delta or Alpha. Nonetheless, Israel and Great Britain have ordered at least temporary entry restrictions from the countries in which the variant is suspected. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also said on Friday morning that the EU Commission would propose, in close consultation with the member states, to stop air travel in South Africa at short notice. When and where exactly the outbreak took place is still unclear. An infected person was identified in Hong Kong who had stayed in South Africa for some time until mid-November.

If the variant is officially included in the list of “interesting” or “worrying” variants by the WHO today, it should be given the designation “Nu”. The WHO arranges the worrying corona variants according to the Greek alphabet. The last detected pathogens – such as “Mu” – were descendants of the now globally dominant delta variant. Delta already contains some mutations that have significantly increased their transferability and also reduced the effectiveness of vaccines and some drugs. The changes in the spike protein are decisive for this.

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