The World Health Organization will meet on Friday to assess a new variant detected in South Africa that is feared to be the worst Covid-19 variant yet identified.
The meeting will determine if the B.1.1.529 variant should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”. The variant, which was identified on Tuesday, initially attracted attention because it carries an “extremely high number” of mutations.
Some world leaders have hastily responded by issuing new precautions and travel restrictions, while markets around the world saw falls sparked by the uncertainty.
Indian health officials on Friday put states on alert, asking them to carry out “rigorous screening and testing” of travellers who had arrived from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, and to trace and test their contacts.
Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan urged all states to ensure that samples from Covid-positive travellers be swiftly sent to genome sequencing labs for testing.
New Zealand is also closely monitoring global advice on the new variant, the ministry of health said. The deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, said the new variant was “a real wake-up call for all of us, that this pandemic is still going” and reiterated the need to continue with caution.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a press briefing on Thursday: “We don’t know very much about this [variant] yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
The infectious disease epidemiologist said that researchers would meet to “understand where these mutations are and what this potentially may mean” in terms of whether it is more transmissible or has potential to evade immunity.
A high number of mutations does not necessarily make a variant more transmissible. In August, similar concerns emerged about a variant in South Africa, known as C.1.2, but it was never listed as a variant of interest or concern. In Japan, some experts believe the country’s pronounced fall in cases was down to mutations that drove it towards “natural extinction”.
At the meeting the WHO may decide whether or not to give the B.1.1.529 variant a name from the Greek alphabet. If it does, it is likely to be named Nu, the next available letter.
England announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from midnight on Friday, and that returning travellers from those destinations would have to quarantine. Israel has followed suit, saying it will ban its citizens from travelling to southern Africa.
UK civil service sources said the variant, which is feared to be more transmissible and has the potential to evade immunity, posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine programme which we have to protect at all costs”.
Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, confirmed the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was investigating, saying “more data is needed but we’re taking precautions now” in a tweet late on Thursday.
UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries said: “This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is under way to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility.”
Scotland confirmed late on Thursday that all arrivals from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be required to self-isolate and take two PCR tests from midday on Friday, while anyone arriving after 4am on Saturday will need to stay at a managed quarantine hotel.
Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said it was investigating and would swiftly close its borders to travellers from the African nation if the WHO were to classify it as a major new variant. “If the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate,” he told reporters on Friday morning.
Markets took a hit on Friday, with world stocks heading for a 0.7% fall – their largest weekly drop in nearly two months, Reuters reported.
South Africa’s rand fell 1%, Japan’s Nikkei was down 2.4% and Australian shares fell 0.6% in early trade, as did US crude futures. S&P 500 futures fell 0.4%, while the Australian and New Zealand dollars dropped to three-month lows.
“The trigger was news of this Covid variant …and the uncertainty as to what this means,” said Ray Attrill, head of FX strategy at National Australia Bank in Sydney. “You shoot first and ask questions later when this sort of news erupts.”
On Thursday, South Africa’s health minister Dr Joe Phaahla said the new variant could be driving a recent “exponential rise” in cases in Gauteng, a north-eastern province home to the city of Johannesburg.
B.1.1.529 is thought to contain a total of 32 unusual mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against Covid.
Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, whose lab is assessing the variant, said: “We’re flying at warp speed.” She said there were anecdotal reports of reinfections but that it was too early to draw any conclusions.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s centre for epidemic response and innovation, said the news was “really worrisome at the mutational level” and described the variant as being “of great concern”.
Variants of concern, such as Delta, show increased transmissibility, virulence or change in clinical disease, and a decreased effectiveness of public health and social measures. Variants of interest are those shown to cause community transmission in multiple clusters, and which have been detected in multiple countries, but have not yet necessarily proven to be more virulent or transmissible.
An infectious diseases specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Dr Richard Lessells, said the number of mutations “might affect how well the virus is neutralised” and may give the virus enhanced transmissibility.
South Africa has confirmed about 100 cases as B.1.1.529 but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa.
The significance of the variant so far remains unknown, with the coming days and weeks key to determining its severity.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has,” Kerkhove of the WHO said, adding the variant is “under monitoring” and “something to watch”.
Ewan Birney, the deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and a member of Spi-M, which advises the UK government, said it posed a risk of worsening the pandemic.
He urged countries not to repeat the mistake of failing to act quickly. “What we’ve learned from the other situations like this – some have turned out OK and some haven’t – is that whilst we’re [investigating] you have to be reasonably paranoid,” he said.
The 32 mutations in the spike protein is about double the number associated with the Delta variant. Mutations of this kind can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.
However, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief John Nkengasong urged for caution. “There are so many variants out there but some of them are of no consequence on the trajectory of the epidemic,” he told a news conference on Thursday.