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A heavily-mutated Covid variant emerges in southern Africa

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.

South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said in a media briefing held by the South Africa Department of Health on Thursday that the variant contains a “unique constellation” of more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells.

This is significantly more than those of the delta variant, which spread like wildfire earlier this year to become the dominant strain worldwide. Many of these mutations are linked to increased antibody resistance, which may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and affect how the virus behaves with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility, health officials have said.

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.

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.

Israel has also barred travel to several southern African nations over the new variant, as well as Singapore.

Spread no yet known

The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database on Nov. 22, but genomes have now been uploaded from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, with the extent of the spread not yet known.

Cases have been concentrated so far in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populated region and home to almost 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during Thursday’s briefing.

The South African rand nosedived on Friday morning to more than 16.2 against the dollar as investors rushed for cover.

The new development comes as cases of Covid-19 surge around the world heading into the winter months, with multiple countries in Europe in particular seeing record spikes, and implementing strict containment measures.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, said on Friday that suggestions that the variant could be more transmissible than delta, and that it could evade vaccine protections, meant it is “a matter of some serious concern.”

“The delta variant is already extraordinarily transmissible. It is really difficult to think of another virus that is more transmissible,” Schaffner said.

“If we have another Covid strain that can spread even more readily than delta, that would pose a challenge to all of us around the world, because when delta arrived this summer, it changed the game.”

One positive so far, however, is that the variant has not yet been associated with more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.

Markets roiled

Markets around the world tumbled sharply in response to the news, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 dropping 3% in early trade and U.S. stock futures pointing to an opening loss on the Dow Jones Industrial Average of more than 800 points.

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