A man walks into 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 highly mutated variant of Covid-19.
A variant known as B.1.1.529 has been found in small numbers in South Africa, according to WHO officials.
South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said at a media briefing held by the South African Department of Health on Thursday that the variant contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, a component of the virus that binds to cells.
This is significantly more than the delta variant, which spread like wildfire earlier this year and became the dominant strain worldwide. Many of these mutations are associated with increased resistance to antibodies, which can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and affect the behavior of the virus in relation to vaccines, treatments and transmission, health officials said.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said on Thursday in a live Q&A that scientists “don’t know very much about it yet” and that it will take weeks to get a full picture of how The variant responds to existing vaccines.
The UK immediately banned flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe from Friday noon to 4am local time on Sunday.
The UK Health Safety Agency is investigating an option that Health Minister Sajid Javid said is “potentially troubling.” Not a single case has yet been identified in the UK.
Israel has also banned travel to several South African countries due to the new option, as well as Singapore.
Distribution not yet known
The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on November 22, but now genomes from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong have already been uploaded, and the extent of distribution is not yet known.
South African Health Minister Joe Faahla said in a briefing on Thursday that cases so far have been concentrated in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous region, home to nearly 16 million people.
The new developments are taking place as the COVID-19 outbreak around the world is approaching the winter months, with record surges and stringent containment measures in many European countries in particular.
William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNBC on Friday that speculation that the variant might be more contagious than delta and that it might shy away from vaccine protection means it is “a serious concern.”
“The delta variant is already extremely contagious. It’s hard to think of another virus that is more transmissible, ”Schaffner told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia.
“If we have another Covid strain that can spread even faster than delta, it will be a problem for all of us around the world, because when delta appeared this summer, it was a game changer.”
So far, however, one positive point is that this option has not yet been linked to more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.
Markets are agitated
Markets around the world fell sharply in response to this news. The Stoxx 600 fell 3% in early trading, and US stock futures pointed to the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling more than 800 points at the open.