WHO convenes special meeting to discuss new variant of Covid from South Africa with ‘large number of mutations’

RT: Maria Van Kerkhove, Head ai Emerging Diseases and Zoonosis at the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at a press conference on the coronavirus situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29 2020.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization is monitoring a new variant with many mutations in the spike protein, scheduling a special meeting on Friday to discuss what this may mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said on Thursday.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has been detected in South Africa in low numbers, according to the WHO.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a lot of mutations. And the concern is that when you have that many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus, “Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19, said in a question-and-answer session broadcast live on the organization’s social media.

Surveillance of the new variant comes as Covid cases increase around the world as the holiday season approaches, with the WHO reporting hot spots in all regions and particularly in Europe.

South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells in the body, South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said on Thursday at a press conference hosted by the South African Department of Health.

The B.1.1.529 variant contains multiple mutations associated with increased antibody resistance, which can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, as well as mutations that generally make it more contagious, according to the slides he presented during the presentation. briefing. Other mutations in the new variant have not been seen so far, so scientists are not yet sure whether they are significant or will change the behavior of the virus, according to the presentation.

The variant quickly spread to Gauteng Province, which contains the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.

“Especially when the peak occurs in Gauteng, everyone is entering and exiting Gauteng from all over South Africa. So it is evident that in the next few days the start of an increase in the positivity rate and numbers are going to happen. It’s a matter of days and weeks before we see that, “South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at the briefing.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, Phaahla said.

“Right now, researchers are meeting to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and furin cleavage site, and what that can potentially mean for our diagnostics or therapies and our vaccines,” Van said. Kerkhove. She said there are less than 100 complete genome sequences of the new mutation.

The virus evolution working group will decide whether B.1.1.529 becomes a variant of interest or a variant of concern, after which the WHO will give the variant a Greek name, Van Kerkhove said.

“It is really important that there are no knee-jerk answers here, especially when it comes to South Africa,” said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO emergency program.

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