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Explained | Why The New B.1.1.529 Covid-19 Variant Detected In South Africa Causing Alarm

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New Delhi: The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be far from over, with a Govt Warns Of New Covid Variant Found In South Africa, Alerts States For Rigorous Testing At Airports

What is B.1.1.529 coronavirus variant? Why is it a concern?

The new coronavirus variant, called B.1.1529, has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, AP quoted Tulio de Oliveira of the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa as saying. In comparison, the Delta, which was behind the devastating second wave in India, and Beta variant of the virus had two and three mutations respectively.

This high number of unusual mutations can help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists said. However, the variant can be detected by a RT-PCR test. 

“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks,” Tulio de Oliveira said.

So far, the WHO has designated four coronavirus variants of concern. They are Beta (first detected in South Africa), Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Gamma (P.1). Alpha, Delta and Gamma variants were first detected in the United Kingom, India, and Brazil respectively.

How many cases have been detected so far?

In South Africa, the government-run National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 cases of the B.1.1529 variant have been recorded in the country. South Africa is seeing a fresh surge in Covid-19 cases, particularly in the most populous province of Gauteng. There were 2,465 infections recorded on Thursday, up from fewer than 900 two days previously.

Hong Kong has confirmed two cases after genome sequencing analysis. One of the cases was a traveller arriving in Hong Kong from South Africa, Bloomberg reported. The other case was identified in a person quarantined in the hotel room opposite the traveller. The government said that person might have been infected as air flowed between the rooms.

In Botswana, which neighbors South Africa, the new variant has been detected in four people who were fully vaccinated.

How did the new Covid variant evolve?

B.1.1.529 is likely to have evolved during chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute.

What has India said on the new Covid-19 variant? How have other nations responded?

The Union Health Ministry has asked states and Union territories to start “rigorous screening and testing” of all travellers coming from or transiting through Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong.

In a letter to all states, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said, “This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel.”

“It is imperative that all international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries and also including all other ‘at risk’ countries are subjected to rigorous screening and testing. The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested,” Bhushan said.

The states have also been asked to send the samples of travellers testing positive to designated labs of Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG).

UK has announced a temporary suspension of flights from six countries, including South Africa. Israel has also banned travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini due to the new variant, reports said.

(With inputs from agencies)

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