WHO Calls Urgent Meeting to Discuss Worrisome New South African COVID Variant

WHO Calls Urgent Meeting to Discuss Worrisome New South African COVID Variant

By Yehudit Garmaise

The World Health Organization (WHO) will be meeting today in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss a highly-mutating, and therefore highly transmissible, new COVID variant has been detected in South Africa after a spike in COVID-19 infections were discovered in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

“The biggest risk is that [this variant] is better at re-infecting people as well as being more transmissible and virulent,” said Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London. 

Although South Africa may seem far away, in October 2020, the Delta variant first emerged in India, before quickly becoming the world’s dominant strain of the virus.

By August 2021, the Delta variant had spread from India to more than 163 countries.

Israel, which is one of the world’s most vaccinated countries and just re-allowed travelers to enter the country a month ago, just confirmed that at least one resident, who was vaccinated, and maybe three are infected with the new South African variant.

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

The confirmed Israeli COVID patient had just returned to Eretz Yisroel from Malawi, which is in the southern part of Africa.

After Israel’s list of countries from which travelers were banned entry was empty for six weeks, as no country met the Health Ministry’s criteria, last night, Prime Minister Bennett added South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Eswatini to Israel’s restricted list.

Travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana, which is also in the southern part of Africa, have also been found to be infected with the new strain of COVID.

The new variant, which may be called “Nu,” which is a Greek letter, like “Delta,” but for now is called B.1.1.529, has a spike protein that is extremely different to the one in COVID’s original strain: causing scientists to worry that it can evade vaccines, according to the UK Health Security Agency.

While WHO experts are meeting today to discuss the risks of the new variant and whether it should be designated as one of “interest” or variant of “concern,” many other countries around the world today have restricted travel from southern Africa in a frantic effort to disallow the virus from entering their borders.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines,” Maria Van Kerkhove, MD, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, told CNBC. 

“We don’t know very much about this yet,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said. “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.”

(photo credit flicker/ Mark Bess)

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