The World Health Organization has scheduled a special meeting Friday to discuss a worrying new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa that appears to be rapidly mutating.

The so-called B.1.1.529 variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in its spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people, scientists have warned.

“We don’t know very much about this 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,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, according to CNBC.

Here is what we know about B.1.1.529 so far.

The B.1.1.529 variant type appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in its spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.Getty Images

Where has B.1.1.529 been detected?

It’s unclear from where the new variant actually arose, but South African scientists first detected on Tuesday a small number of the B.1.1.529 variant in samples from Nov. 14-16.

The South African scientists informed the government they were concerned on Wednesday, and asked WHO to convene its technical working group.

The country has detected about 100 cases of the variant.

The World Health Organization has scheduled a meeting to discuss a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa that appears to be mutating.AP

Hong Kong has identified a variant case in a traveler from South Africa, while Botswana has detected four cases in foreigners who have since left the country.

On Friday, Israel — one of the world’s most vaccinated countries — announced that it has also detected the country’s first case of B.1.1.529 in a traveler who returned from Malawi.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency. Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement released by his office.

The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. Israeli officials said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

The first case in Europe has been detected in Belgium, according to the country’s top virologist.

Is B.1.1.529 more infectious?

A lot about the strain is still unknown, however, scientists say its high number of mutations could mean it is more transmissible.

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press that the data so far suggests that the virus’ mutations are “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”

She said it would take several weeks to do the necessary lab tests to determine answers.

B.1.1.529 has a spike protein that is extremely different to the one in the original bug that the vaccines are based on.AP

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said a spike in COVID-19 infections in South Africa — particularly in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province — was concerning.

“The biggest risk is that (this variant) is better at re-infecting people as well as being more transmissible and virulent,” he said in a statement. 

Can B.1.1.529 evade vaccines?

B.1.1.529 has a spike protein that is drastically different to the one in the original bug that the vaccines are based on, according to the UK Health Security Agency, which is raising some concern about how current jabs will perform against it.

South Africa’s Department of Health also said during a briefing Thursday that the variant contains several mutations associated with increased antibody resistance, which may reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines.

Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said scientists are studying the role of vaccines in halting the spread of B.1.1.529.

“We’re flying at warp speed,”  Moore told Nature magazine.

However, it is important to note that fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the variant are so far available, according to the WHO.

It’s unclear from where the new variant actually arose, but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has also been seen in travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.AP

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said.

WHO experts are meeting Friday to discuss the risks the variant presents and if it should be designated as one of interest or variant of concern.

“Right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said, adding that the agency could assign it the Greek name Nu.

Which countries have already restricted travel over B.1.1.529?

The EU and UK were among those who moved to impose travel restrictions on southern African countries amid the surge in B.1.1.529.

Britain has put six African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, on its red list – which means arriving travelers have to quarantine for 10 days in a government facility.

The EU said Friday it would move to ban flights from southern African countries.

Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Malta and the Czech Republic have already restricted flights from the same countries as the UK.

Israel and Singapore have also barred its citizens from traveling to southern Africa and have banned the entry of foreigners from the region.

Meanwhile, top US infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci said more data is needed before the US decides on a travel ban.

“There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said in an interview on CNN Friday.

“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.

“Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.”

Fauci said US scientists would speak with South African counterparts on Friday.

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