It’s official: there’s a new variant of COVID-19 out, and it’s a doozy. B.1.1.529 – it’s due to get a Greek name today, which is likely to be Nu – has the potential to spread like wildfire, and experts are split on just how worried we should be.
In times like this, information moves quickly – so we’ve compiled a quick Q&A about the most important things we know right now.
What do we know so far about B.1.1.529?
Not much. The variant was detected very recently, and so far has only been confirmed in fewer than 100 cases. Most of those have been in the South African province of Gauteng, though some cases have surfaced in Botswana. One case was detected earlier in the week in Hong Kong, and the first cases have now been confirmed in Belgium and Israel, all in travelers from countries in Africa.
We do know that the variant has an astonishing number of mutations, described by one expert as “horrific,” but precisely what those mutations will mean is yet to be known.
The World Health Organization began a meeting this morning to determine the significance of the new variant, as well as name it, but they warned that it may be weeks before we know how transmissible and vaccine-resistant the virus is.
What makes it so concerning?
All viruses mutate and evolve over time, and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is no exception. Most of the changes that occur don’t make much difference, but sometimes they create what’s known as a “variant of concern”. This is when the virus mutates in a way that changes things like how easily it can be transmitted, how vaccine-resistant it is, or how well scientists can detect its presence.
The mutations that set B.1.1.529 apart are worrying scientists for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s just so many of them: 50 mutations overall, more than 30 of which are located on the spike protein. That could be a problem because the spike protein is the bit that most vaccines target.
What’s more, ten of the mutations are in the receptor binding domain – the bit of the virus that first makes contact with our cells and starts off the infection process. That’s five times as many mutations as the Delta variant has in the same place – and the Delta variant is so transmissible that it currently makes up 99 percent of cases worldwide.
Will the new variant be more transmissible than previous variants?
We don’t know for sure yet – but we can deduce some information from the data already available.
First, we can look at the number of cases detected so far: “we’re seeing in South Africa … they were at a very, very low point, with a very low amount of cases being detected a day,” Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency, said on BBC Radio 4's Today program this morning. But that quickly changed, and “in a shorter period than two weeks they … more than doubled their epidemiology picture,” she explained.
The R number of the new variant – remember that’s the reproduction rate, or the average number of people one infected person will pass the virus to – is being reported as two, Hopkins pointed out, which is “really quite high.” Any virus with an R number above one will spread exponentially, and although the virus currently only has a low number of confirmed cases, experts suspect that up to 90 percent of cases in Gauteng may be this new variant.
“We’ve not seen levels of transmission like that since right back at the beginning of the pandemic, because of all of the mitigations and steps we’ve taken,” Hopkins said. “So that would cause a major problem if you had that high transmission with this type of virus in a population where it may evade the immune responses that are already there.”
We can also look at the mutations themselves. Although some of the mutations are completely new to scientists, some have already been seen in previous variants. One such mutation, N501Y, was first found in the Alpha variant, and its effect does seem to be to make the virus spread more easily. Another, P681H, is suspected to help the virus replicate faster and increase immune resistance.
Will our vaccines still work?
Again, we don’t know yet. The variant has spread very rapidly in South Africa, but local vaccination rates are only around 24 percent – that’s less than one in four.
Echoing the message sent out by the WHO, one anonymous member of South Africa’s COVID-19 committee told the Telegraph that it would be “weeks and weeks” before we get a clear idea of how the new variant will fare against current vaccines. And Hopkins agreed, telling Today that “it will take weeks rather than days to find the full information.”
Is there any good news?
Well, at the very least there’s some less-bad news. Firstly, one of the new variant’s mutations happens to make it very easy to test for – “we can detect it very quick,” explained Tulio de Oliveira, director of the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation, in a press statement yesterday. “And this will help us to track and understand the spread.”
It’s also “worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled,” pointed out virologist Tom Peacock in a series of tweets about the variant. “However, it very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile.”
There’s also the fact that the new variant seems to have been detected fairly early. That means it may be easier to contain, epidemiologist and director of University College London's Genetics Institute Francois Balloux told the BBC.
“It's annoying, it's problematic, but it's not like a new pandemic,” he said, adding that we shouldn’t expect to lose “entire immunity” against the new variant.
Even if B.1.1.529 is confirmed to be more transmissible, it would not “bring us to square one,” he said, noting that the new variant “could be a setback,” but “not a complete start again of the whole thing.”
What can we do?
On a country-wide scale, quite a few things are already happening. South Africa itself is convening a council this weekend to advise on lockdown measures, and a number of countries including the UK and those in the EU have restricted travel to and from countries in Southern Africa such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.
Although many lawmakers have stated this is simply the “principle of maximum precaution” at work, South Africa has called such measures “rushed,” pointing out that the WHO is yet to advise on travel restrictions.
On a personal level, though, the advice is simple: get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and get a booster shot if you have.
“The full significance [of the new variant] remains uncertain,” de Oliveira cautioned. “The vaccines remain the critical tool to protect us from severe disease.”