How worried should we be about the new variant of Covid?

The sudden emergence of a new variant – which should be called Nu by the WHO – brought back heartbreaking flashbacks from last winter, when the world was first informed of a new, more transmissible form of the virus.

Now, just like then, there are a lot of questions to which we have few answers: How much will the variant decrease the potency of the vaccines? How contagious is it? Does it cause greater disease? And what does all of this mean for the trajectory of the pandemic?

Scientists are already working hard to explore these issues and assess the genetic makeup of the variant – although health officials believe it will likely take up to eight weeks before we are able to develop a clear picture of what is happening and what is happening. is in front.

Even so, to be in this position is an incredible achievement of modern science given that “Nu,” or B.1.1.529 as it is currently called, exploded onto the scene within days.

This is one of the many reasons the alarm bells have been sounded. In South Africa – again in the crosshairs after his experience with Beta – cases have increased throughout November, with the majority of these infections being reported in Gauteng province.

Scientists say up to 90% of new cases in the region could have been caused by B.1.1.529, and there are concerns that it will “quickly take over” from Delta, suggesting it is “more fit ”than its viral cousin. . If that turns out to be the case, it will only be a matter of time before the variant dominates globally.

It was not only the variant’s rapid rise that raised concerns, but its genetic profile as well. Scientists agree that B.1.1.529 is “unprecedented” and “very unusual” due to its far-reaching mutations, the majority of which are concentrated in the spike protein – the key with which the virus penetrates in the cells of our body. .

It was theorized that the variant emerged from an immunocompromised individual who was unable to clear the virus from their system, allowing them to gradually transform over time and acquire one mutation after another, before finally get out of his evolving gymnasium.

These mutations, which read like alphabet soup, have “been associated previously with increased transmission and immune evasion,” says Professor Sharon Peacock, one of the UK experts leading our response to B.1.1. 529. “We are not familiar with many changes. “

How these mutations alter the nature of the variant and interact with each other remains to be determined. Some believe they will reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and the protection they provide – health secretary Sajid Javid said it was a possibility on Friday – while others insist that there is still a long way to go before the Covid virus can overcome the high walls of our immunological defenses.

Whatever responses scientists report from their labs, it’s reassuring to see such a swift response to the variant, which those at Whitehall consider to be “the worst we’ve seen so far.” The UK jumped straight into the spotlight, placing several Southern African countries on the “red” travel list.

A lesson has been learned from Delta and the government’s inexplicable decision to allow the import of thousands of cases before closing the border with India. As a result, a great wave – unstoppable – was sown in a short time.

While travel restrictions ultimately won’t stop B.1.1.529 – assuming it finally takes off globally – it gives us time to prepare our response, refocus our vaccination and recall efforts, to plan accordingly, to hopefully help us through the cold winter months ahead.

University of Leeds virologist Dr Steve Griffin summed it up well: “Act now. If it turns out it’s a storm in a teacup, then back out. There is nothing to lose by going too fast or too hard.

The WHO has advocated the benefits of the precautionary principle from day one of the pandemic – assume the worst, prepare for it – and now is our window of opportunity to apply it.

If B.1.1.529 fizzles out, like many variations before it, the world will undoubtedly breathe a collective sigh of relief. Another bullet dodged. But it won’t be long before we find ourselves in this same dance.

The warnings have been loud and clear from the start: don’t underestimate this virus. After months of relative silence on the genetic frontline – leading many to assume that Covid has reached its evolutionary peak – a new enemy has surfaced, one who may well displace Delta. How long before another viral competitor emerges?

These variants pose the most serious threat to the global immunization program, and in a world of glaring immunization inequality, sky-high infection rates, and partially protected populations, we actively endorse the evolution of this virus – to our own detriment.

The WHO recently warned that a degree of complacency had started to set in. “The fight is over,” many think. ‘We won.’ This recklessness takes many forms – from not worrying about wearing a mask, to not donate thousands of excess vaccine doses to those in need – but it can be canceled. Regardless of what comes from B.1.1.529, I hope it serves as a much needed reminder that we are all in the same boat.

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