New COVID variant crops up; WHO calls for urgent meeting

Special meeting of experts will discuss the B.1.1.529 strain, discovered in South Africa, and decide if it is variant of ‘interest’ or ‘concern’

Scientists have spotted over 30 mutations to the spike protein of the new COVID virus variant. This may make it more contagious and resistant to vaccines. (Representational image)

As the world was seized by the news that a new, lethal variant of COVID had been identified, the World Health Organization (WHO) was set to convene an experts’ meeting in Geneva on Friday, at 11 am GMT (4.30 pm IST), to assess the situation.

The meeting is being held amid growing concern over the B.1.1.529 strain, said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier. The variant, which has just been identified in South Africa, is the dominant one in that country now, with over 100 cases. There has also been a smattering of cases in other south African nations.

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“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Technical Lead on COVID. “And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.” She was addressing a Q&A session that was livestreamed on the WHO’s social media handles.


What the meeting will discuss

The WHO meeting will decide if B.1.1.529 is to be termed a ‘variant of interest’ or a ‘variant of concern’. Subsequently, it may be assigned a Greek name, said Van Kerkhove. Currently, it is unofficially referred to as ‘South African variant’. However, the WHO has cautioned against such country-based nomenclature.

“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here, especially with relation to South Africa,” said Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO’s Emergencies Program.

Alarm bells are ringing worldwide. Hong Kong has one known case of B.1.1.529. Israel and the UK have banned flights from South Africa and five other African nations. Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency, was cited by media reports as saying the new variant is the “most worrying we’ve seen”. Its transmission levels are unprecedented, she is quoted as saying.

High number of mutations

The variant’s discovery was officially announced on Friday by South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla, who said the concern is over the high number of mutations and the dramatic spike in cases. Scientists have spotted over 30 mutations to the spike protein, which binds the virus to cells in the body, and is hence critical for transmission.

Current COVID vaccines target the spike protein, preventing the virus from unlocking access to human body cells. Therefore, it is suspected — though not confirmed — that the latest variant may be able to resist vaccines. It is also likely to be far more contagious than the other virulent forms of SAR-Cov-2, including the Delta variant.

“Right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said in her address. There are fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the new mutation, she added.

The new variant scare adds to the existing concern over a fresh outbreak in several regions, particularly Europe. Some of the European nations such as Austria have already imposed lockdowns while some others have brought in select curbs.