The variant – called B.1.1.529 – is feared to be highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response due to its “very unusual constellation” of mutations, 32 of which are located in the virus’s spike protein.
Many virologists have started to sound the alarm over the variant, warning that pre-emptive action needs to be taken as soon as possible, while others have insisted more data and time is needed to determine the threat posed by B.1.1.529.
The variant was first spotted in Botswana, where three cases have since been identified. Across the border in South Africa, around 100 cases have been detected – though in both countries, it’s feared the mutation accounts for a larger number of infections.
In response, experts have said early action needs to be taken in case the variant does prove to be as problematic as feared.
“The time is clearly now,” said Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, highlighting that a “massive influx” of aid or vaccine supplies could be one option to take.
He added it was worth “trying to be creative about things we might be able to do to help areas confronted with a new variant, in addition to trying to limit its spread”.
Although Dr Barrett warned he did not know enough about the situation in South Africa to recommend a definitive strategy, he warned that “for any kind of response, if it is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing fast”. Delayed action “undermines the value of whatever you decide to do, as we have seen globally over and over again”.
“Exponential spread and global travel means that every day counts,” he added.
Dr Steve Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, said South Africa needed to be “supported by additional measures”. He also pointed to the example of sending additional vaccine doses to the country, but went further in suggesting that “sensible travel restrictions” could be required.
“Act now, if it turns out to be a storm in a teacup then stand down,” he said. “I despair that folks continue to advise watchful waiting on this.”
Professor Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, agreed that assisting in the ramping up of vaccinations across southern Africa was “an excellent idea”.
“If it's a false alarm, then we can step down response in a few weeks,” she said. “But this is our window to act.”
Early analysis suggests the variant has rapidly increased in the most populated South African province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces, according to the nation’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
As many as 90 per cent of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe, and it’s feared that it is “rapidly taking over” from Delta, which remains the globally dominant variant.
South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organisation (WHO) working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.
Health minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.
Although the country is thought to have high levels of natural immunity in the population, it has struggled with its national vaccine rollout. To date, roughly 24 per cent of people in South Africa have been double vaccinated.
B.1.1.529 has also been detected in an individual who returned to Hong Kong after visiting South Africa.
Ewan Birney, director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said on Twitter that the new variant “definitely look[s] like a code red”.
He added: “Time to red-list international travel from southern Africa, monitor circulating SARS-CoV-2 (isolates, wastewater), drugs and vaccines to SA…”
Others aren’t so concerned by the emergence of B.1.1.529. Professor David Matthews, a virologist at the University of Bristol, said he did not believe that the variant would be able to overcome the protection provided by the vaccines.
“We've spent the last two years listening about variants that are apparently going to cause the sky to fall in and they don’t,” he said. “Unless this new variant is doing something spectacularly different, like putting people who are vaccinated in hospital, or putting people who've recovered in hospital, then I'm not worried at this stage.
“People are thinking that the virus can just endlessly change, and become more and more dangerous. But it can't. There are restrictions on what viruses can do.”
Dr Jake Dunning, a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, acknowledged that at this early stage, “it's hard to know” whether specific targeted measures for dealing with the new variant would “be appropriate, effective or necessary”.
“Of course, increasing immunity through widespread vaccination, particularly for those in known risk groups and healthcare workers, is a sensible and correct thing to accelerate, just in case,” he added.
“Rich countries have a moral duty to step up now and make genuine efforts to accelerate immunisation.”