Healthcare workers assist patients being treated at a makeshift hospital run by charity organisation The Gift of the Givers during the outbreak of the coronaviruses COVID 19 in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 11, 2021. REUTERS Sumaya Hisham
JOHANNESBURG LONDON, Nov 26, Reuters - Global authorities have reacted with alarm to a coronaviruses variant detected in South Africa, with the EU, Britain and India announcing stricter border controls as scientists try to determine if the mutation is vaccine resistant.
South African scientists have detected a small number of the variant B. On Tuesday, 529 in samples from Nov. 14 -- 16
On Wednesday South African scientists sequenced more genomes, informed the government that they were concerned and asked the World Health Organization to convene a technical working group on virus evolution for Friday.
The country has identified around 100 cases of the variant, mostly from its most populated province, Gauteng.
South African scientists say early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest it has spread rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces.
The country's daily infection rate was nearly doubled to 2,465. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases NICD did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, though local scientists suspect it is the cause.
Botswana detected four cases, all foreigners who arrived on a diplomatic mission and have since left the country.
Hong Kong has one case, in a traveller from South Africa and Israel, one in a traveller returning from Malawi.
The variant is relatively easy to distinguish in PCR tests from Delta, the dominant variant of COVID 19 and the most infectious so far. It has a mutation known as the S-gene drop-out, unlike Delta.
All viruses - including SARS-CoV -- 2, the virus that causes COVID 19 change over time. Most changes have little impact on their properties.
The severity of vaccines and the performance of vaccine against them may affect how easily they spread.
This one has been subject to scrutiny because it contains more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that viruses use to get into human cells, according to UK health officials.
That is almost double the number of Delta, making this variant substantially different from the original coronaviruses that current COVID vaccines were designed to counteract.
South African scientists say that some of the mutations are associated with resistance to neutralising antibodies and enhanced transmissibility, but others are not well understood, so full significance is not yet clear.
UK Health Security Agency Chief Medical Advisor Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC radio that some mutations had not been seen before, so it wasn't known how they would interact with the other ones, making it the most complex variant seen so far.
More tests are needed to confirm if it's more transmissible, infectious or can evade vaccines.
The work will take a few weeks, according to the World Health Organization technical lead on COVID 19 Maria van Kerkhove. In the meantime, vaccines are a critical tool to contain the virus.
Following the infection with the B, there have been no unusual symptoms. South Africa's NICD said that 529 variants and some individuals are asymptomatic.
The UN agency will decide whether it will be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern. If there is evidence that it is more contagious and that vaccines work less well against it, the latter label would be applied and it would be given a Greek name.
Four variants of concern have been identified by the WHO - Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
There are two variants of interest: Lambda, identified in December 2020 in Peru, and Mu in January in Colombia.