Has a new coronavirus variant emerged in South Africa?

Yes, unfortunately, there is a new variant in town, so to speak – and it has been labelled B.1.1.529.

On November 25, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa announced the detection of this variant of the SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, following genomic sequencing.

Worryingly, it appears to have been around since November 12 and in the period up to November 20, the B.1.1.529 variant had been detected in 77 samples collected from Gauteng province in South Africa (an economic hub, apparently), 4 samples from Botswana and 1 sample in Hong Kong, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control.

Why is it worrying the world and the stock markets?

The new strain is sending a shiver down the spine of the stock markets which have crashed across the world. This is because health experts say it has an “unusual constellation” of new mutations, or more mutations to the spike protein than other variants.

“ This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick! In less than 2 weeks it now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa,” said Tulio de Oliveira, Director with the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation (South Africa).

Now the Delta variant was the one that hit India badly earlier this year, overwhelming hospital infrastructure especially in Delhi, and leaving people desperate for hospital beds, oxygen, medicines and so on.

The present surge of coronavirus cases in Europe are being attributed to Delta, and now reports suggest that the new variant from Africa could be even more transmissible.

Will existing vaccines work against B.1.1.529?

There is no clarity yet on whether existing Covid-19 vaccines continue to be effective against this variant.

What has been WHO's response to it?

The World Health Organization has called for a meeting with scientists from South Africa. According to reports, the WHO’s TAG (Technical Advisory Group) Virus Evolution working group will discuss today, if it needs to be labelled a variant of interest or a variant of concern.

Depending on this meeting and outcome, the variant could be given a Greek name – to distance it from the region it was identified.

How have other countries reacted to the new variant?

Though public health experts are cautioning against a “knee-jerk” closing of borders, the United Kingdom has already brought in travel restrictions on flights from six African countries. Italy. Germany, Israel have also followed suit, and more are likely to bring back restrictions on the recently opened-up international travel routes.

Should India worry about this variant? What should our response be?

Yes, India should be worried, as the country has just recovered, and well, from the ravages of the second wave. Daily active cases are down and so too are the deaths across the country from Covid-19.

The Health Ministry has already made its first move on Thursday evening and asked States to intensify surveillance on international travellers from these “at risk” countries. India’s genome sequencing consortium INSACOG, besides other surveillance apparatus will be keeping a close watch on this variant, that comes at a time holiday travel is expected to pick-up and international air travel was scheduled to open-up fully.