“Heavily mutated” is not a term that you should casually throw around, as in “you’re a good friend but heavily mutated” or “would you like to try this heavily mutated food?” But the term could apply to a new Covid-19 coronavirus variant, currently known as the B.1.1.529 variant, that’s been recently detected in Botswana and South Africa. This version of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has over 50 mutations total with over 30 changes to the spike protein. While many of these mutations are already present in other existing SARS-CoV-2 variants, such as that darn Delta variant, this B.1.1.529 variant could be the winner if a “variant with the most mutations” title were awarded today.
Clearly, seeing so many mutations, especially when they affect the all-important spike protein, should raise some eyebrows. The immune protection from vaccination or previous infection is likely oriented towards earlier versions of the spike proteins and the virus. That protection is not like a pair of cast iron Spanx. It does have some flexibility and may fight off versions of the virus that are somewhat different from the original one. However, such protection may become less and less effective the more different the virus becomes. The big concern is that eventually an “escape variant” will emerge, one that is so different from previous versions and thus can readily get past your immune protection.
Before today, there seemed to only be ten confirmed cases of the B.1.1.529 variant: three in Botswana, six in South Africa, and one in person in Hong Kong who had just traveled in South Africa. However, a press briefing today organized by South Africa’s health department revealed that the B.1.1.529 variant seems to have spread much further than initially thought. Here’s the beginning of a tweet thread from Tulio de Oliveira, PhD, Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & innovation (CERI) in South Africa:
As you can see in the following tweets on the thread, de Oliveira indicated that in just the past two weeks, the percentage of Covid-19 coronavirus testing samples that contain the B.1.1.529 variant has shot up well above 50%:
In other words in about one Scaramucci, the B.1.1.529 variant has gone from not really detected to being present in the majority of the samples.
Now, the term B.1.1.529 is not like R2D2, Mambo No. 5, or 867-5309/Jenny. It’s not super easy to remember. But this new variant may not be just known as a jumble of numbers for long. The large number of mutations and the rapid spread of the B.1.1.529 variant has prompted a World Health Organization (WHO) expert group to discuss this variant tomorrow. There’s a good chance that they will dub B.1.1.529 as either a variant of interest or a variant of concern. Either designation will mean that the name of the variant will soon likely be Greek to you and everyone. The WHO will probably assign a Greek letter as a name. The next letter up in Greek alphabet would be Nu. So this may soon be known as the Nu variant. Or the new Nu variant.
Before you panic and say, “I Nu it, I need to hoard more toilet paper now,” consider several things. First of all, it’s never good to panic. No public health official should ever say, “OK, it’s time to panic now.” Secondly, what the heck would you do with all that toilet paper?
Thirdly, just because the variant has that many mutations and seems to be spreading doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be the next Delta variant. Or even the next Lambda variant or Mu variant. It’s still too early to tell how much of a problem the B.1.1.529 variant will become. A combination of more laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological studies will be needed to determine whether this version of the SARS-CoV-2 is indeed more infectious and transmissible than the Delta variant and to what degree this version may evade existing protection from the vaccine or previous infection. Not all mutations are good for the virus and bad for you, assuming that you are not rooting for the virus. Again while more mutations may make the spike protein less recognizable by your current immune defenses, it may also affect the virus’s ability to infect you and spread.
For now, it will be important to closely monitor the spread of this new variant and better determine how much of a threat it could be. Don’t assume yet that it will be a major problem. It could very well not be able to compete with other versions of the virus and not bring worse outcomes.
Regardless, this is yet another reminder that the pandemic is not over. The emergency hasn’t passed. This ain’t the time for premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions. While the Covid-19 vaccines do offer good protection, they are not concrete full body condoms. They do not offer 100% protection. So it’s important to maintain other precautions such as face mask wearing and social distancing whenever possible. Stay up to date on the public alerts as the situation may change from week-to-week. And pay attention the Nu’s.