A new COVID-19 variant has been detected in South Africa

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It's a variant of concern, according to scientists.

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The COVID-19 virus is a king of all kinds of mutations. We’ve had the Alpha variant, Gamma variant, Beta variant, and Delta. And now there’s a new variant — Omicron — that just emerged and was identified in South Africa. WHO designated Omicron a variant of concern.

Besides South Africa, the six African countries affected by the new variant were Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. In addition, the Omicron variant has been detected in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.

Scientists in South Africa are concerned that this new variant may be more transmissible due to unusual mutations. It’s not a major variant at this point, but it’s currently under investigation.

It has a different spike protein than the original coronavirus, which could make vaccines less effective.

Britain has temporarily put travel restrictions on South African regions and requires all returning British travelers from those regions to quarantine for 10 days.

In recent weeks, South Africa saw 200 new confirmed cases per day. Alarmed by the sudden surge of cases, scientists studied the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

A group of experts from the WHO organization will be further assessing the data from South Africa. The WHO said it would take “a few weeks” to understand the impact of the new variant.

Is this a variant of concern?

The high number of mutations in this particular variant — which is about 30 — is a cause for concern because it makes it more transmissible to people.

Sharon Peacock, who analyzed the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge said that the data suggests high mutations are “consistent with enhanced transmissibility.”

What do we know so far?

So far, this variant has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, but it has the potential to spread rapidly to other areas. The variant has not yet arrived in the U.S. It’s clear that this variant is genetically distinct from other variants — Alpha and Beta, but it’s not yet known whether the genetic mutation of the virus makes it more transmissible or dangerous.

At this point, there is no clear relationship between a surge of cases and the new variant, and the scientists need more time to analyze the data. It’s also unclear whether or not it poses a public health threat. As South African experts have noted — some people infected with the virus didn’t show any symptoms.

Since its emergence, the COVID-19 virus has undergone many mutations and given rise to many variants. Some mutations could be more transmissible or deadly. For this reason, scientists closely monitor COVID-19 sequences to analyze mutations to understand the relationship between the outbreaks and the genetic sequences.

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London said it was impossible to make any predictions about whether or not the virus was more dangerous or infectious based on its genetic make-up alone.

The bottom line: The COVID-19 virus has undergone many mutations since it first emerged. The COVID-19 vaccine that targeted the spike protein of the original virus may not work as well against the newly emerging variants. That means it may or may not be as effective against this new variant.

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