COVID-19 | A new variant detected in South Africa

by time news

South Africa has detected a new variant of the virus responsible for COVID-19, authorities reported Thursday. Although this new form of the virus has many mutations and could be very contagious, there is no reason to panic, experts say.

Florence Morin-Martel

Florence Morin-Martel

If the situation is not very worrying for the moment, “one should not be arrogant either,” warns André Veillette, professor of medicine and director of the Molecular Oncology Research Unit at the Clinical Research Institute. from Montreal. “Is the variant more transmissible?” Is it more resistant to vaccines? Does it cause more severe illnesses? », Asks Mr. Veillette. It is too early to know.

Detected in South Africa, the B.1.1529 variant shows an “extremely high” number of mutations, said virologist Tulio de Oliveira. It could also spread very quickly, added the latter, during an online press briefing headed by the Ministry of Health. This Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) is to meet to determine the dangerousness of the new variant.

To date, 22 cases have been reported, mainly among young people, said the National Institute of Contagious Diseases. Infections have also been reported in Botswana, as well as in Hong Kong, in a person returning from a trip to South Africa. After the South African government’s announcement, the UK suspended flights from that country, as well as those arriving from Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

With the increase in cases in recent weeks and the appearance of this new variant, the South African authorities fear a new wave of the pandemic. South Africa is the hardest-hit country on the African continent, with a total of 2.9 million cases.

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Many changes

For now, the concern about the variant is not due to the number of cases, but rather to the many mutations, explains André Veillette. While some changes have no effect and may even slow down reproduction of the virus, mutations in the new variant occur in the area where the COVID-19 vaccine works. “It is possible that vaccines protect less well against this variant, but we do not yet have proof of this,” he adds.


In South Africa, only 35% of the adult population is adequately vaccinated against COVID-19.

Due to the low vaccination rate in South Africa, the variant probably developed in unvaccinated people. It is therefore possible that it is “not suitable” for vaccines, says Benoit Barbeau, virologist and professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal. In this country, 35% of the adult population is adequately vaccinated.

However, due to the large number of mutations, the discovery made in South Africa represents “a whole new reality in terms of variants”, according to Mr. Barbeau. As for the fact that the cases of the new variant have been identified mainly in young people, he believes that it is early to draw conclusions. “Are older people more vaccinated? He asks himself.

Is the Delta variant in the process of being downgraded?

In addition to having effects on vaccination, certain mutations can make a variant more transmissible, until it becomes dominant.

The Delta variant is one example, having reduced the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines to 40%, according to the WHO.

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To explain the dominance among the variants, M. Veillette compares them to runners. “There are certain variants that go so fast that they take over,” he explains. Other variants are transmitted more slowly, but can still infect people who have been vaccinated. “These variants are then good at obstacle course”, he sums up.

As long as the Delta variant is dominant, “we can live in a certain normality because we are vaccinated,” underlines Roxane Borgès Da Silva, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal. The real fear is to see the appearance of a variant resistant to vaccination, adds Mr. Veillette.

Caution and third dose

While waiting to learn more, we must continue to be careful in the face of the virus and to respect the health instructions, recalls André Veillette. “The situation is still fragile at the planetary level”, he maintains. Europe has again become the global epicenter of the pandemic.

In this context, it is imperative to receive a third dose, according to Mr. Veillette. “We must be protected as much as possible because we do not know what will happen”, concludes the professor.

With Agence France-Presse

In numbers

89 600

Number of deaths due to the pandemic in South Africa


Number of new cases recorded Wednesday in South Africa

Source: Agence France-Presse

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