The new variant B.1.1.529, which was identified in South Africa, has been causing concern as it is the most heavily mutated version discovered so far. While it is still early days and the confirmed coronavirus are still mostly concentrated in one province in South Africa, there are hints it may already have spread further.
Paul Hunter, professor in Medicine researching transmission of emerging infectious diseases, wrote to his over 2,000 Twitter followers on Thursday night stating the consequences of the variant are still unknown.
He wrote: “Given the large number of mutations that B.1.1.529 seems to have acquired it may have evolved in an immune supressed individual, probably in South Africa, who developed a chronic infection.
“It is too early to know if B.1.1.529 will become a major threat to the control of the pandemic globally but if it does we should ask ourselves whether it could have been prevented if the world had ensured vaccine was rolled out to the most vulnerable in all countries.”
His post received 115 likes and 49 retweets, with many of his followers agreeing with the professor.
He told the BBC: “This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected.”
The new variant has even been dubbed “really awful” by Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London.
However, Professor Fancois Balloux has assured ”there is no reason to get concerned” about the development.
Only a handful of cases have been recorded – three in Botswana, six in South Africa and one in Hong Kong and scientists are hopeful that cases caused by the new mutation will not be widespread.
Professor Balloux told Sky News: “For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.”
She added that the “constellation” of mutations on B.1.1.529 could be because it “evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient”.