Scientists have said a new Covid variant that carries an “extremely high number” of mutations may drive further waves of disease by evading the body’s defences.
Only 10 cases in three countries have been confirmed by genomic sequencing, but the variant has sparked serious concern among some researchers because a number of the mutations may help the virus evade immunity.
The B.1.1.529 variant has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid. Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.
The variant was first spotted in Botswana, where three cases have now been sequenced. Six more have been confirmed in South Africa, and one in Hong Kong in a traveller returning from South Africa.
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted details of the new variant on a genome-sharing website, noting that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern”.
In a series of tweets, Peacock said it “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile”, but added that it may turn out to be an “odd cluster” that is not very transmissible. “I hope that’s the case,” he wrote.
Prof Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director, UCL Genetics Institute, UCL, said:
“B.1.1529 is a new lineage that has been found in Botswana that carries an unusual constellation of mutations. Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient.
“It is difficult to know what to make of the carriage of both P681H and N679K. It is a combination we see only exceptionally rarely. I suspect it is generally not ‘stable’, but it might be so, in combination with other mutations/deletions.
“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognised by neutralising antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage.
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