Thirty-two mutations in the spike protein? Scientists are warning that a new COVID-19 variant recently discovered is already showing potential for increased infectivity and reduced antibody recognition, The Guardian reports.
Just 10 cases in three countries have been confirmed so far, all originating in south Africa (three in Botswana, six in South Africa, and one in Hong Kong in a traveler returning from that part of the world). Dr. Meera Chand, COVID-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency, said that the Agency was monitoring the situation.
“As it is in the nature of viruses to mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed,” she said.
According to Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggests this could be of real concern.” He added that the new mutation, so far known as B.1.1.529, “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile.”
Two of the 32 mutations have already been confirmed to be potentially more virulent and capable of rendering the variant more immune to antibodies to previous variants, which could plausibly reduce the efficacy of existing COVID-19 vaccines.
“It does certainly look a significant concern based on the mutations present,” said Prof. Ravi Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at Cambridge University, whose lab studied the variant and highlighted some of its properties. “However, a key property of the virus that is unknown is its infectiousness, as that is what appears to have primarily driven the Delta variant. Immune escape is only part of the picture of what may happen.”
Prof. Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said the large number of mutations in the variant apparently accumulated in a “single burst,” which suggests that they may have developed during a chronic infection in someone with a weakened immune system.
“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognized by neutralizing antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta,” he said. “It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage. For the time being it should be closely monitored and analyzed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”