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Explainer | What we know about B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa

Global authorities have reacted with alarm to a coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the European Union, Britain, and India among those announcing stricter border controls as scientists seek to determine if the mutation is vaccine-resistant.

November 26, 2021 / 05:39 PM IST
(Representative image: Reuters)

(Representative image: Reuters)

Global authorities have reacted with alarm to a coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the European Union, Britain, and India among those announcing stricter border controls as scientists seek to determine if the mutation is vaccine-resistant.


South African scientists detected a small number of the variant – called B.1.1.529 – on Tuesday, in samples from Nov. 14-16.

On Wednesday South African scientists sequenced more genomes, informed the government that they were concerned and asked the World Health Organization to convene its technical working group on virus evolution for Friday.

The country has identified around 100 cases of the variant, mostly from its most populated province, Gauteng.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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South African scientists say early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest it has spread rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces.

The country's daily infection rate nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465. The South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, though local scientists suspect it is the cause.

Botswana detected four cases, all foreigners who arrived on a diplomatic mission and have since left the country.

Hong Kong has one case, in a traveller from South Africa and Israel one in a traveller returning from Malawi.

The variant is relatively easy to distinguish in PCR tests from Delta, the dominant COVID-19 variant and the most infectious so far. Unlike Delta, it has a mutation known as the S-gene drop-out.


All viruses – including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 – change over time. Most changes have little or no impact on their properties.

However, some changes may affect how easily they spread, the their severity or the performance of vaccines against them.

This one has drawn scrutiny because it has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that viruses use to get into human cells, UK health officials say.

That is about double the number of Delta, and makes this variant substantially different from the original coronavirus that current COVID vaccines were designed to counteract.

South African scientists say some of the mutations are associated with resistance to neutralising antibodies and enhanced transmissibility, but others are not well understood, so its full significance is not yet clear.

UK Health Security Agency Chief Medical Advisor Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC radio some mutations had not been seen before, so it was not known how they would interact with the other ones, making it the most complex variant seen so far.

So more tests will be needed to confirm if it's more transmissible, infectious or can evade vaccines.

The work will take a few weeks, the World Health Organization's technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Thursday. In the meantime, vaccines remain a critical tool to contain the virus.

No unusual symptoms have been reported following infection with the B.1.1.529 variant and, as with other variants some individuals are asymptomatic, South Africa's NICD said.


The UN agency will decide if it should be designated a variant of interest or variant of concern. The latter label would be applied if there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it, and it would be given a Greek name.

The WHO has so far identified four variants "of concern" – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

Two variants of interest are Lambda, identified in Peru in December 2020, and Mu, in Colombia in January.
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