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The World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to convene an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the potentially rapidly spreading coronavirus strain found in South Africa and Botswana that might make vaccines less effective and scuttle efforts to fight the pandemic, reports said on Friday.

The WHO said it is “closely monitoring” the reported coronavirus variant and will determine if it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern” in the technical meeting on Friday.

“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” the WHO added.

‘Mutation variant of serious concern’

Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday they have detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, adding it was responsible for a surge in infections.

Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday that the new discovery, called B.1.1529, carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous variants.

Also read | Scientists detect new Covid-19 variant in South Africa: Report

“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” South African health minister Joe Phaahla said.

The government-run National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the new variant have been recorded in the country. The NICD said the number of detected cases and the percentage testing positive are “increasing quickly” in three of the country’s provinces.

‘Dramatically different’

Scientists have said that many of the mutations indicate its high transmissibility and resistance to vaccines, the strain has more changes in the spike protein than all other Covid-19 variants.

The UK Health Security Agency has said the coronavirus variant has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that Covid-19 vaccines are based on. The agency has declared variant B.1.1.529 a Variant under Investigation (VuI).

Also watch | India warns states, UTs as new Covid variant found in South Africa worries WHO

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries said.

“The variant includes a large number of spike protein mutations as well as mutations in other parts of the viral genome. These are potentially biologically significant mutations which may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility. More investigation is required,” UK Health Security Agency said in a statement.

The UK Health Security Agency said no cases of it had been detected in Britain so far.

Scientists said lab studies were needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.

Flight bans, new cases

UK health secretary Sajid Javid on Thursday announced a temporary suspension of flights from six countries after reports emerged that a new coronavirus variant. Israel also banned travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini due to the new variant, BNO News reported.

Hong Kong confirmed two cases of the new Covid variant after genome sequencing analysis by the University of Hong Kong. 

One of the cases was a traveller arriving in Hong Kong from South Africa. The other person was quarantined in the hotel room opposite and might have been infected as air flowed between the rooms.

Rigorous testing

In India, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Thursday wrote to all states and Union territories to start “rigorous screening and testing” of all international travellers coming from or transiting through Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong.

“lt is critical for the States/UTs to adhere to the overarching ‘Test-TrackTreat-Vaccinate’ principle to ensure stringent implementation of containment measures as per Ministry of Health and Family Welfare guidelines,” said the letter.

“It has now been reported by National Cooperative Development Corporation (NDMC) that this variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” he wrote in the letter.

“The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested as per MoHFW guidelines,” said the letter.


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