A new Covid-19 variant is already causing panic, with some experts saying it is potentially 500 per cent more infectious than previous variants.
The variant, B.1.1.529 was discovered earlier this month in Africa and while the World Health Organization (WHO) only listed it as a Variants Under Monitoring on November 24, it has experts rattled.
"My god—the new #B11259 variant being possibly 500% more competitively infectious is the most staggering stat yet," epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted.
He added that the variant, which will likely be referred to as the Nu Variant as per the WHO's labelling based off the Greek alphabet, has more than two times the number of "bad spike mutations" compared to Delta.
"500% more infectious for #B11529 is jaw dropping if it is true," Dr Feigl-Ding said in another Tweet.
"Let’s hope the early data is wrong. We actually REALLY REALLY want this early data to be wrong … because if it’s not wrong… it’s cataclysmic."
Despite only being tracked for the past three days, the virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already.
By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has caused massive outbreaks across the world, including Australia.
12) 500% more infectious for #B11529 is jaw dropping if it is true. Let’s hope the early data is wrong. We actually REALLY REALLY want this early data to be wrong … because if it’s not wrong… it’s cataclysmic. See new 🧵 below. https://t.co/Drd5KoJpiL
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) November 26, 2021
The new variant has a “constellation” of new mutations, said Tulio de Oliveira, from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, who has tracked the spread of the Delta variant in the country.
The “very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” said de Oliveira.
“We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast," he said.
"We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”
4) also keep in mind, that in South Africa, that it’s seeing the spike in #B11529 despite South Africa being 72% previously infected. Clearly it’s not enough. Natural infection is NOT A VALID STRATEGY! pic.twitter.com/PCj8WO326A
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) November 26, 2021
De Oliveira said that a team of scientists from seven South African universities is studying the variant. They have 100 whole genomes of it and expect to have many more in the next few days, he said.
“We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant,” he said. The one piece of good news is that it can be detected by a PCR test, he said.
New variant detected in at least four countries
So far it is has been identified in Botswana, South Africa, Israel, and in a man aged in his 30s who returned to Hong Kong from South Africa
The man who travelled to Hong Kong tested positive for Covid while in hotel quarantine, but it now appears another person at the quarantine hotel, in a room opposite the infectious traveller has the B.1.1.529 variant.
NDTV reported the government said the transmission may have occurred as air flowed between the rooms.
Dr Feigl-Ding said both the people in Hong Kong were fully vaccinated.
A traveller who returned to Israel from Malawi also tested positive.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced on Thursday the variant has rapidly spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
South Africa has seen a dramatic rise in new infections, Phaahla said at an online press briefing.
“Over the last four or five days, there has been more of an exponential rise,” he said, adding that the new variant appears to be driving the spike in cases.
Scientists in South Africa are working to determine what percentage of the new cases have been caused by the new variant.
World tightens borders amid concern for variant
The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from Friday.
Anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant Delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.
Singapore swiftly joined Britain, with the health ministry saying on Friday it would restrict arrivals from South Africa and countries nearby as a precaution.
Japan's government also decided to tighten border controls for visitors from South Africa and five other African countries, the Jiji news service reported.
After easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month, India's central government issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.
Taiwan said travellers from "high-risk" southern African countries will have to go into government-run quarantine facilities for 14 days.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Reuters that New Zealand was well prepared for the new variant.
Meanwhile, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says Australia is perfectly prepared for an emerging Covid-19 variant should it arrive in the country, despite fears from experts.
Mr Hunt said the variant's emergence would not mean an immediate change to the national reopening plan, but the response would be swift should advice change.
"We've always been flexible, and if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won't hesitate," Mr Hunt said.
With AP, Reuters and PA
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