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Highly-mutated Covid-19 variant B.1.1.529 emerges in Africa and puts UK scientists on alert



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A new Covid-19 variant with a “horrific” profile has been detected in Africa and is being watched closely by UK scientists.

The variant, currently named B.1.1.529, emerged in Botswana and has since spread to Hong Kong and South Africa.

Cases of the new strain have been detected in Africa and Hong Kong. Picture: iStock.
Cases of the new strain have been detected in Africa and Hong Kong. Picture: iStock.

It is believed to be the most mutated variant yet, leaving virologists concerned about its ability to evade people’s immunity.

So far, only a small number of cases of the strain have been officially identified by genomic surveillance, none of them in the UK, where the Cambridge-led COG-UK Consortium oversees the sequencing of thousands of samples.

The majority of cases either originated in Africa or can be traced back to travel through the continent.

The new strain has been identified as B.1.1.529. Image: Stock photo.
The new strain has been identified as B.1.1.529. Image: Stock photo.

Investigations have found that the B.1.1.529 variant has 32 mutations to its spike protein - the area of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid-19.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Department of Infectious Disease based at Imperial College London, tweeted: “Worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about.”

In South Africa, the government warned the variant may already be present in most provinces.

Earlier this week, the government changed its advice for Covid testing in the UK as it attempts to avoid the fourth wave of the virus sweeping western Europe, where a number of countries are returning to lockdown restrictions and debating mandatory vaccination policies.

The previous guidance for people to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests and to test when visiting someone medically vulnerable has been updated to advise people to test when entering busy ‘high-risk’ crowded areas this winter.

The government is now asking people to test before entering busy areas
The government is now asking people to test before entering busy areas


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