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26 November 2021

Concerns mount over rapidly spreading B.1.1.529 variant

The variant is heavily mutated, which may affect its transmissibility or the effectiveness of vaccines against it.

By Katharine Swindells

Concerns are high over a new rapidly spreading Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa, designated B.1.1.529.

Early research suggests that the variant is very heavily mutated, which may affect its transmissibility, immune evasion or the effectiveness of vaccines in protecting against it. The most recent prevalence data from South Africa shows that B.1.1.529 could have rapidly risen to almost 80 per cent prevalence in the last week.

Susan Hopkins, adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, says that the B.1.1.529 has an R (or reproduction) value of 2 – an R value over 1 means cases are growing exponentially.

Details and data on the variant are currently limited, as it was so recently detected. It is also largely in the Gauteng province of South Africa, which may be skewing the results as almost all of the most recent sequencing samples have been from Gauteng.

Video by Valeria Cardi

But one mutation feature in the B.1.1.529 variant does make it much easier to track using PCR testing rather than whole genome sequencing. Early data out of labs across South Africa shows that B.1.1.529 may be rapidly increasing across all provinces.

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South Africa, along with Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, have all been placed on the UK’s travel red list as of Friday morning (26 November).

[See also: The new ‘Nu’ Covid variant is of our own making]

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