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How dangerous is Botswana Covid strain? Experts fear it could be 'vaccine resistant'

It looks like it's highly contagious. The other issue is, will the vaccine protect against this variant?
Reports have said the new variant is easily evading Covid vaccines (Representation image/ Andriy Onufriyenko/ Getty Images)
Reports have said the new variant is easily evading Covid vaccines (Representation image/ Andriy Onufriyenko/ Getty Images)

Scientists have been concerned over the new Covid variant that has reportedly originated in Southern Africa, forcing the UK and Israel to cancel flights from the region, but the US has not placed any travel restrictions yet. According to reports, the new strain -- B.1.1.529 -- was first found in Botswana.

Two cases related to the new variant have been reported in Hong Kong after a passenger who had recently traveled from South Africa was found infected. Another person got infected from the former one while staying at the same hotel, quarantining. Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said this strain seems more dangerous. He also suggested imposing a travel ban.


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How dangerous is Botswana Covid strain? 

Taking to Twitter, Dr Feigl-Ding wrote that the two infected people were “Pfizer vaccinated”. He also noted that “the viral load of these two with #B11529 in Hong Kong hotels were VERY high. PCR Ct values of 18 and 19!!! That’s insanely high considering they were negative on recent PCR tests. Damn, looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant.”



The doctor went on to say, “It’s very airborne. The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swab across both rooms,” before adding, “I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.”



Botswana has reported four confirmed cases of the new virus, which could be named “Nu” by the World Health Organization in the near future. In total, 77 confirmed cases are found in South Africa, but it has been said that the real number is much higher -- probably in the hundreds. Besides, Hong Kong has two confirmed positive cases.

At a press conference organized by South Africa's health department in Durban on Thursday, November 25, Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal said: “There's a lot we don't understand about this variant. The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”

Explaining the dangers of the new strain, Marc Siegel, professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center, told Fox News, “I've said before - I'm not always as concerned about these variants of concern, but this one, B.1.1.529, does concern me. It's got 32 mutations in the spike protein, which is how the virus spreads. And in the province around Johannesburg, there's about 2,500 new cases over the past day, and they think — not proven yet — that this is the predominant variant.”

Siegel added, “It looks like it's highly contagious. And that is what concerns me, because the other variants that have emerged haven't had a chance against Delta because Delta is so contagious. The other issue is, will the vaccine protect against this variant? Will the treatments protect against this variant? We're keeping a really close eye on this one.”

Agreeing with Dr Feigl-Ding’s support for travel ban, Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the British government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines. There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants. It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The Government's move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent. However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.”

But Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at Stanford, was against travel restrictions as he said, “Given how transmissible that the nu variant apparently is, I do not think that halting travel will ultimately be effective in preventing the variant from arriving. COVID is a global pandemic. No country can isolate itself forever, and halting travel imposes harm on the kind of international cooperation we will need to end the pandemic. A better idea would be for the international community to provide sufficient vaccine supplies to the affected places.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19 said at a virtual press briefing."The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves. It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines." So talking about symptoms of this variant may be too early as of now. The new variant is likely to have evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute has said.