ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s health authorities are on alert for a mutated variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, currently spreading in South Africa, an official said.
Health Services Deputy Director Dr Hemantha Herath told EconomyNext on Friday (26) that a technical committee of the health ministry is reviewing available data on the new strain which is said to be unresponsive to vaccines currently in use around the world.
The variant, named B.1.1.529 was first detected on November 24 and has since been observed in multiple countries, but is spreading mostly in South African countries, international reports said.
Advising caution, Dr Herath said public gatherings should be minimised as any variant that enters the country from abroad will spread only if it is allowed to spread.
Variants also form when the spread of existing strains increases, he said, urging the public to strictly adhere to COVID-19 guidelines.
Since a lockdown was relaxed in Sri Lanka on October 01 and an inter province travel ban was lifted subsequently, life has all but returned to normal barring a seemingly high mask compliance. Though vaccination has progressed considerably, new infections have been on the rise gradually, leading to the possibility of another lockdown come Christmas time.
According to foreign media reports, South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation Director Prof Tulio de Oliveira has said there were 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein of the new strain. The spike proteins are the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into the human body’s cells.
Oliveira said when samples were closely observed, the receptor binding domain, the part of the virus that makes first contact with the body’s cells, has 10 mutations compared to just two for the Delta variant that swept the world.
Media reports citing experts said, with vaccines being manufactured to defeat the original variants, the widely available jabs may not be effective against a vastly mutated variant of the virus.
Head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Technical Committee Maria Van Kerkhove was quoted as saying there are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences available of the virus.
“We do not 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,” Kerkhove said during the WHO update on Thursday (25).
“So right now researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics, our therapeuticsls and vaccines.”
Kerkhove said it is good the new variants are being detected, but It will take a few weeks for WHO to understand what impact this variant will have on the current situation.
“It is a variant that is under monitoring. The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG VE) will discuss if it will become a variant of interest or variant of concern, and if that is the case, then we will give it a Greek name.”
Kerkhove said the public needs to understand the more the virus is circulated the more opportunities it has to change.
She said the public should take precautions to minimise the spread.
With the new variant being identified mostly in South Africa, the United Kingdom banned all flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia from midday Friday (26).
The WHO in its weekly epidemiology update said 14 of the 49 countries in the African region reported an increase of 10 percent in new cases as compared to the previous week, with the highest numbers reported from South Africa, 3,498 new cases (5.9 new cases per 100 000 populations; an 82 percent increase), Ethiopia 1,408 new cases (1.2 new cases per 100 000; an 11 percent decrease), and Réunion 1,308 new cases (146.1 new cases per 100 000; a 77 percent increase).
The WHO said the majority of countries reported a decrease in weekly deaths; however, an increasing trend was observed in nine countries, with the highest numbers of new deaths reported from South Africa, 96 new deaths, Ethiopia 59 new deaths and Algeria 38 new deaths.
Variants of Concerns
- Alpha – B.1.1.7
- Beta – B.1.351
- Gamma – P.1
- Delta – B.1.617.2
- Variants of Interest
- Lambda – C.37
- Mu – B.1.621
Variants Under Monitoring
- B.1.617.1 §