A NEW variant of the coronavirus called B.1.1.529 has been identified in South Africa, and officials there say the situation is very worrying.
It is feared that the new strain could spur new waves of epidemics in many countries and put pressure on health systems, complicating efforts to reopen economies and borders. European stock indices and crude oil futures fell as treasuries strengthened. Governments around the world have begun banning travelers from South Africa and surrounding countries.
Here’s what we know about this new strain so far:
1. What is different in this variant?
Scientists say that B.1.1.529 carries a large number of mutations in its spiky protein, which plays a key role in the virus entering cells in the body. This is also the target of the vaccine. Researchers are still trying to determine whether it is more transmissible or deadly than previous strains.
2. Where did she come from?
For now, there is only speculation. A scientist from the UCL Genetics Institute in London said that it probably evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, probably in an untreated patient with HIV / AIDS. South Africa has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the most in the world. The beta variant, a mutation identified last year in South Africa, may also have come from a person infected with HIV.
3. How widespread is it?
As of Thursday, nearly 100 cases have been discovered in South Africa, where it has become the dominant species among new infections. Early PCR test results showed that 90% of the 1,100 new cases reported Wednesday in a South African province that includes Johannesburg were caused by a new variant, said Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatics professor who runs gene sequencing institutions at two South African universities. In neighboring Botswana, officials on Monday reported four cases of people being fully vaccinated. In Hong Kong, a variant was found in passengers from South Africa, and another case was identified in a person who was in quarantine in a hotel room across the hall. Israel has also identified a case of a man who recently traveled to Malawi.
4. How did the markets respond?
News of the new variant rocked financial markets on Friday as stocks, treasury yields and oil sank – with travel-related stocks among the biggest drop. The yen, commonly considered a safe haven, rose 0.6% against the dollar, while the South African rand fell to a one-year low. Shares in the U.S., which will continue trading after Thanksgiving, are expected to open lower, with December contracts on the S&P 500 index falling 1.7%, the most since September. European stocks have fallen the most since July, with the Euro Stock 50 index by 3%. The vaults have risen in full, pushing yields down, and the five-year rate has fallen by 13 basis points. Crude oil futures in New York fell by as much as 6.4 percent and traded below $ 74 per barrel. Copper, nickel and aluminum fell by at least 2% in trading in London.
5. How do other countries react?
The United Kingdom issued a temporary ban on flights from six African countries, and others followed suit. Singapore restricts the entry of people who have been in South Africa and nearby countries for the past 14 days, while the European Union has proposed suspending air traffic from South Africa. Australia has said it will not rule out tightening border rules for passengers from South Africa if the situation escalates, while India has tightened controls on incoming passengers from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
6. How worrying is this variant?
It’s too early to tell. The World Health Organization said there are less than 100 whole genomic sequences of the new strain, which could contribute to the time it takes to study its comparison with previous strains and its impact on Covid therapies and vaccines. Viruses mutate all the time, and changes sometimes make the virus weaker or sometimes make it more adept at avoiding antibodies and infecting humans.
7. What should we pay attention to next?
The WHO convened a meeting on Friday to discuss B.1.1.529 and decide whether it would be officially labeled as a variant of interest or concern. If he does, he will get the name of the Greek letter according to the WHO naming scheme, probably the letter “nu”. More details on how contagious and deadly the variant is should also come as researchers continue to research data around B.1.1.529.
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