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LONDON – South African scientists this week identified a new version of the coronavirus which they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It is not known exactly where the new variant actually appeared, but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has also been seen in travelers in Hong Kong and Botswana.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” in cases over the past few days, although experts are still trying to determine whether the new variant, named B.1.1.529, is really responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of daily new cases climb to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden increase in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

On Friday, the World Health Organization convened an expert group to assess South Africa’s data.

WHY ARE SCIENTISTS CONCERNED BY THIS NEW VARIANT?

It appears to have a high number of mutations – around 30 – in the coronavirus spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to humans.

Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said data so far suggests that the new variant has mutations “compatible with improved transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of most mutations is still not known.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve seen.” He said it was concerning that although the variant had only been detected at low levels in parts of South Africa, “it appears to be spreading rapidly”.

WHAT IS KNOWN AND DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE VARIANT?

We know the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but we don’t know if these genetic changes make it more heritable or dangerous.

South African scientists have noticed a surge of cases, but we don’t know if the new variant is responsible for it and it will take weeks to determine if vaccines are still effective against it.

So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more serious disease. South African experts have said that, as with other variants, some infected people do not show any symptoms.

Even though some of the genetic changes in the new variant appear worrying, it is still unclear whether the virus will pose a significant threat to public health. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not end up spreading very far.

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said it was impossible to predict whether or not the virus was more dangerous or infectious just on the basis of its genetic makeup.

HOW DID THIS NEW VARIANT BE BORN?

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing genetic changes, often disappear. Scientists are monitoring COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more communicable or fatal, but they cannot determine this simply by examining the virus. They need to compare the disease pattern in outbreaks to genetic sequences and determine if there is a real link may take time.

Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in an infected person but then failed to clear the virus, giving the virus the ability to evolve genetically,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe the alpha variant – which was first identified in England – also emerged, mutating in an immunocompromised person.

ARE THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED BY CERTAIN COUNTRIES JUSTIFIED?

May be. At noon on Friday, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be required to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union countries also acted quickly on Friday to try to stop air travel from southern Africa.

Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent,” said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

Balloux of University College London said if the new variant turns out to be more infectious than delta, the new restrictions will have little impact but could still buy the UK time to increase vaccination rates and deploy other possible interventions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The World Health Organization has convened a technical expert group to decide whether the new variant merits designation as variant of interest or variant of concern. If they do, the variant will likely be named after a letter of the Greek alphabet, according to the current naming system.

The variants of interest – which currently include the mu and lambda variants – have genetic changes known to affect things like transmissibility and disease severity and have been identified to cause large clusters in several countries.

Worrisome variants – which include alpha, beta, and delta – have been shown to spread more easily, cause more serious disease, or make current tools like vaccines less effective.

To date, the delta variant remains by far the most transmissible form of COVID; it represents more than 99% of the sequences shared with the largest public database in the world.

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