Scientists sound alarm about new ‘worst ever’ supermutant Covid variant

Scientists have sounded the alarm tonight about a new ‘worst ever’ supermutant Covid variant that will make vaccines at least 40 percent less effective, as Australia said it will monitor its progress ‘very carefully’.

Experts have previously explained how the B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — suggesting it could be more puncture resistant and transferable than any previous version.

The variant – which could be dubbed ‘Now’ by the World Health Organization in the coming days – has led to an ‘exponential’ rise in infections in South Africa and has already spread to three countries – including Hong Kong and Botswana, where it is believed that to have arisen.

The federal government is monitoring the progress of the variant and could ban flights from the affected African countries.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Friday morning that the variant is under investigation but is “not a variant of concern.”

“But that could change,” he said.

‘We monitor all those variants. We note the reactions of other countries and take them into account in real time.’

Chancellor of the Exchequer Simon Birmingham told Sky News Australia: ‘If we have to pursue closures in certain locations, we won’t hesitate to do so.’

Australia is closed to tourists but will open to foreign-skilled migrants and students from December 1 as long as they are vaccinated and test negative.

In April, the government banned flights from India, including to Australian citizens, for two weeks due to a severe Delta outbreak in the subcontinent.

A senior expert from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said: ‘This is the worst variant we’ve seen yet.’

Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.

The variant has more than 30 mutations — about twice as many as the Delta variant — that could potentially make it more transmissible and circumvent the protection given by previous infection or vaccination.

The expert whose modeling helped initiate the first coronavirus lockdown said the decision to impose travel restrictions was “cautious”.

Professor Neil Ferguson, member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: ‘The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein targeted by most vaccines.

“Therefore, there is concern that this variant has a greater potential to escape previous immunity than previous variants.

It is also worrying that this variant appears to be causing a rapid increase in cases in South Africa. The government’s decision to limit travel to South Africa is therefore a sensible one.

‘However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1,529 may be more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to provide a science-based assessment of risk. poses.’

A senior scientist said, “One of our biggest concerns is that this peak virus protein is so dramatically different from the viral peak that was in the original Wuhan strain, and thus in our vaccines, that it’s a major concern.”

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) will meet with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.

The variant could eventually be nicknamed “Nu” – with the most disturbing variants named after the Greek alphabet.

This graph shows the number of cases that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian 'Delta' variant (red) in South Africa over time.  It suggests the mutated strain could surpass Delta in the province within weeks

This graph shows the number of cases that were the B.1.1,529 variant (blue) and the Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) in South Africa over time. It suggests the mutated strain could surpass Delta in the province within weeks

The slide above shows the portion of the tests that picked up an SGTF mutation, a feature of the B.1.1.529.  It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading quickly in the country.  The slide was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows the portion of the tests that picked up an SGTF mutation, a feature of the B.1.1.529. It suggests that the Covid variant may be spreading quickly in the country. The slide was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows variants that have been identified per province in South Africa since October last year.  It suggests that B.1.1.529 is concentrated in Gauteng province.  This was presented today at a South African government briefing

The slide above shows variants that have been identified per province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests that B.1.1.529 is concentrated in Gauteng province. This was presented today at a South African government briefing

The above shows the test positivity rate - the proportion of tests that have picked up the virus - in Gauteng province.  This shows that there is an increase in the number of cases in the north of the province.  It is not clear if this can be powered by B.1.1.529

The above shows the test positivity rate – the proportion of tests that have picked up the virus – in Gauteng province. This shows that there is an increase in the number of cases in the north of the province. It is not clear if this can be powered by B.1.1.529

Britain has announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from noon on Friday and that all six countries will be added to the red list.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘The first indication we have of this variant is that it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines we currently have may be less effective against it.

“To be clear, we have not discovered anything of this new variant in the UK at this time. But we have always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress we have made.

“So what we’re going to do is we’ll suspend all flights from six South African countries starting tomorrow at noon and add those countries to the red travel list.

‘These countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We will require anyone arriving from those countries from 4 a.m. on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.”

Two cases have been discovered in Hong Kong – both of which had ties to South Africa – three have been picked up in Botswana and the rest are in South Africa.

But a lack of surveillance over continental Africa could underestimate the true numbers there, scientists warned.

A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa

A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa

UK experts say it will be two to eight weeks before they can study the variant in enough detail to find out how contagious or vaccine resistant it is.

Nationally, infections in South Africa have increased tenfold from 100 a day to 1,100 after the variant was first discovered in neighboring Botswana on Nov. 11.

British government scientists believe it can easily infect previously infected patients as South Africa has a very high natural immunity.

Only 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose of vaccine, while 35 percent have been fully vaccinated.

In a hastily organized press conference today, the South African government revealed that the variant had officially been spotted in three provinces, but warned it was likely already in all nine.

The fact that South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV of any country in the world has made the fight against Covid more difficult, as immunocompromised people can harbor the virus longer, scientists say.

Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said the variant could become dominant in South Africa ‘very quickly’.

When asked if it could soon make up the majority of cases in South Africa, he told MailOnline: ‘The numbers’ [of cases] are very small and there is a lot of uncertainty… but I would say it can become dominant very quickly.’

He said it was “plausible” that the variant was more contagious because it was “better at infecting” people who had immunity to vaccines or previous infections.

But he said very little is known about how likely it is that someone who gets the variant will become seriously ill and die from the virus. Experts say that viruses normally become less virulent over time.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of Covid surveillance in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, said the variant had spread rapidly in South Africa.

In less than two weeks, it now dominates all infections after a devastating Delta wave in South Africa.

“We estimate that 90 percent of cases in Gauteng (at least 1,000 per day) [are this variant].’

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