WHO convenes ad hoc meeting to discuss new Covid variant from South Africa with “high mutation count”

RT: Maria van Kerkhove, Head of Emerging Diseases and Zoonoses at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2020.

Denis Balibaus | Reuters

The World Health Organization is tracking a new variant with multiple mutations in the spike protein, scheduling a special meeting Friday to discuss what this might mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said Thursday.

According to the WHO, the variant, dubbed B.1.1.529, was found in South Africa in small numbers.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the problem is that when you have so many mutations, it can affect the behavior of the virus, “Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, said in response to questions that were broadcast live on channels organizations in social networks.

The new variant is being monitored as the number of Covid cases rises globally ahead of the holiday season, with WHO reporting hotspots in all regions, especially Europe.

South African scientists have discovered more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body, South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said at a media briefing hosted by the South African Ministry of Health on Thursday.

Variant B.1.1.529 contains several mutations associated with increased antibody resistance that can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, along with mutations that usually make the vaccine more infectious, according to the slides he presented at the briefing. Other mutations in the new variant have not been observed so far, so scientists do not yet know if they are significant or will change the behavior of the virus, according to the presentation.

The variant quickly spread throughout the province of Gauteng, where the country’s largest city, Johannesburg, is located.

“Especially when the splash happens in Gauteng, everyone comes and goes from Gauteng from all over South Africa. So it is clear that the next few days will see a rise in the number of positive sentiments and the number of people. It’s a matter of days and weeks before we see it, ”South African Health Minister Joe Fahla said at a briefing.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, Fahl said.

“Researchers are coming together right now to understand where these mutations are located in the spike protein and furin cleavage site, and what this could potentially mean for our diagnostics, therapy and our vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said. She said that there are less than 100 complete genome sequences for the new mutation.

The Virus Evolution Working Group will decide whether B.1.1.529 becomes an option of interest or an option of concern, after which WHO will give the option a Greek name, Van Kerkhove said.

“It is very important that there is no sudden movement here, especially with regard to South Africa,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Emergencies Program.

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