The real threat is unknown
On the other hand, experts have been discussing for months that such strongly changed variants may evolve in people with a weakened immune system – for example, untreated HIV-infected people. When the immune system fights the virus, but cannot completely eliminate it due to the immune deficiency, the pathogen goes through an accelerated evolution. Experts have already observed this several times in cancer patients and in patients after an organ transplant, and in the summer of 2021 also in a person suffering from AIDS. South Africa has a high rate of HIV infection. It happened several times that monoclonal antibodies lost their effect because the virus adapted quickly.
So far these are just hypotheses. The origin of most of the new variants could also be explained in another way, for example by the very high number of cases. This also increases the likelihood that new variants will arise. But experts see the largely missing family tree of B.1.1.529 as an indication that part of the evolution of the variant took place in secret – for example in the course of a long-lasting infection.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called a meeting for today to discuss the possible effects on vaccine development and the further course of the pandemic. In addition, B.1.1.529, like its predecessors, is to be designated with a Greek letter that is easier to use. Experts in South Africa are already working to determine the true potential danger of the variant, in particular how much it undermines immunity through vaccination – South Africa has a relatively low vaccination rate of around 24 percent – and whether it is actually spreading more effectively than Delta. First results are expected in around two to three weeks.
It is also conceivable that the very low number of cases in South Africa gives the variant an opportunity to spread, while it cannot keep up with Delta in countries with high incidences. It is therefore unclear whether B.1.1.529 would spread as quickly and drastically in Germany as it appears in South Africa at the moment. As a precautionary measure, the federal government has declared South Africa a virus variant area, and airlines will then only be allowed to transport German citizens to Germany, said the executive minister of health, Jens Spahn. In order to control the spread of the variant, one could reintroduce variant PCR, which was used in Germany during the third corona wave.