Covid variant B.1.1.529 emerges in South Africa: Here’s what we know

A man enters the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) on June 15, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to discuss a new heavily-mutated variant of Covid-19.

The variant known as B.1.1.529 has been detected in small numbers in South Africa, WHO officials said, with reports on Friday morning of cases being found in Israel and Hong Kong.

Here’s what what we know so far:

Multiple mutations

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a livestreamed Q&A on Thursday that scientists “don’t know very much about this yet” and that it would take a few weeks to gain a full picture of how the variant reacts to existing vaccines.

‘Most significant variant’ to date

The U.K. immediately moved to ban flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from noon on Friday to 4 a.m. local time on Sunday.

The U.K. Health Security Agency is investigating the variant, which Health Secretary Sajid Javid said is “potentially concerning.” No cases have yet been identified in the U.K., and Javid emphasized that although more data is needed at this early stage, the government had opted to take precautions.

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” said U.K. HSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries.

Israel has also barred travel to several southern African nations over the new variant, as well as Singapore. Israel has reported one case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with health experts on Friday to discuss the country’s response, which could reportedly include declaring a state of emergency.

“It looks like this particular variant has a very concerning sets of mutations especially in the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection against the vaccines, so based on the genetic information we are quite concerned about it,” Pasi Penttinen, public health emergency response manager at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told CNBC Friday.

“We still have a lot more to learn about the situation in South Africa and all the efforts should now be not only in South Africa, but countries in the southern African region, to ensure that they get a full picture of this virus.”

However, Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could render it easier to contain.

Balloux added that even if B.1.1.529 is more transmissible than previous variants, it would not “bring us to square one” in the effort to contain the virus. He suggested that it should be seen an irritating setback rather than a rebirth of the pandemic.

Spread not yet known

Markets roiled

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