B.1.1.529 had mutated a total of 32 times when it was first discovered in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa. The strain has since been found in neighboring South Africa, with one case in a traveler returning home to Hong Kong after visiting the continent. There are a total of 10 cases that have been confirmed to be the B.1.1.529 strain.
B.1.1.529’s many mutations have led scientists to believe that the strain could potentially resist the vaccine and evade antibodies.
Although the strain’s spread has been limited, experts around the world are sounding the alarm over the sheer number of mutations in the variant’s spike protein: “the incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern,” said virologist Dr. Tom Peacock. Peacock later tweeted that it “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” but that this intense evolution may not necessarily mean that the strain is highly transmissible, and it could just amount to an “odd cluster.”
The variant was first discovered in Botswana earlier this month on November 11. Scientists are currently monitoring the variant before raising wider concerns about its spread.
Virologists in South Africa, however, have already started to prepare for the possibility of a wider spread of the variant, as cases have been detected in large cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Experts are monitoring the strains as it spreads
Dr Meera Chand, the Covid-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency, said that agencies across the world were working together to track the variant and all Covid-19 variants from the moment of their discovery:
“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,” Chand said.
Some scientists believe that the variant’s many mutations could have arisen from being in the body of a severely immunocompromised individual. Professor Francois Balloux of the UCL Genetics Institute said that these mutations were likely created in a “single burst” inside a patient, possibly someone with a serious undiagnosed auto-immune disease:
“B.1.1529 is a new lineage that has been found in Botswana that carries an unusual constellation of mutations. Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient.”
“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognized by neutralizing antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta,” Balloux 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.”