Botswana mutation: Eight questions and answers – What we know so far, why scientists are worried

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Alarm has been signaled by its new variant coronavirus, τη “Botswana mutation” as it became widely known, which scares the experts and already theEuropean countries are closing their borders on flights from South Africa. Amid growing concern even about the effectiveness of vaccines, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said tonight that It is “premature” to envisage an adaptation of the vaccines to the “Botswana mutation”.

A Guardian article explains through questions and answers what we know so far about mutation Botswana, the way it spread to South African countries, and the reasons for global concern.

When was the mutation first detected?

The variant was identified on Tuesday and has been identified as worrying due to the large number of mutations it may have escaped from vaccines. It has also been linked to an increase in cases in Gauteng County. South Africa, which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg, over the past two weeks.

These two factors put her Botswana mutation under the microscope of the international scientific community, with the chief medical adviser of the British Health and Safety Service on Friday mentioning the variant as “the most worrying we have seen”.

Where did the new variant come from?

Although originally associated with the province of Gauteng, the variant did not necessarily come from there. The oldest specimen of the variant was found in Botswana on November 11.

Scientists say the unusual number of mutations suggests it could have occurred after a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, such as an untreated HIV / AIDS patient.

Why are scientists worried about variation?

Variation brings together over 30 mutations in the protein spike – the “key” that the virus uses to unlock the cells of our body – a number more than double that of the Delta mutation, which has now dominated the world.

The development raises concerns that antibodies from previous infections or vaccinations may no longer fit well into the treatment of the infection. Based on the knowledge of the list of mutations, scientists estimate that the virus will be more likely to infect or re-infect people who are immune to previous variants.

Is the new variant more contagious?

Experts can not say with certainty whether the Botswana mutation it can be more contagious. However, the picture is disturbing. In South Africa, the number of cases rose sharply from 273 on November 16 to more than 1,200 earlier this week.

More than 80% of new cases are found in the province of Gauteng, where a first analysis of the results shows that the variant has quickly become the dominant strain.

The R-Index, which shows how fast an epidemic is growing, is estimated at 1.47 for South Africa, but rises to 1.93 in Gauteng. However, according to the publication, it is possible that these data are due to a statistical error.

Will existing vaccines be effective?

Scientists are concerned about the large number of mutations, which leads to the conclusion that the new variant may be able to bypass the existing immune protection. Any predictions are currently theoretical and scientists are rushing to conduct clinical trials to determine how effective the antibodies are against the new variant. Data from the community on re-infection rates will also give a clearer indication of the extent of any change in immunity.

The scientists estimate that the variant will be recognized by existing antibodies, but that existing vaccines may provide less protection. This is why the need to increase the rate of vaccination and administration of the third dose to the elderly and high-risk groups becomes even more urgent.

Can variation cause more serious illness?

So far there is no evidence as to whether the Botswana mutation leads to more severe symptoms, something that scientists in South Africa are closely monitoring.

Given the time lag between infections and severe illness, it will take several weeks before clear evidence is available.

Can vaccines be modified to treat it?

Researchers are already working on modifying vaccines, in order to be able to deal with the mutated protein spike.

Corresponding movements were made with the mutations B and Delta, although existing vaccines have been shown to be effective. However, the research teams were already ready to develop new vaccine formulas and are in contact with regulators what additional tests would be required. However, it may take up to six months before updated vaccines become widely available.

How likely is it to spread around the world?

The majority of new cases of the Botswana variant are recorded in South Africa, less in Botswana and Hong Kong. Another case was detected yesterday in Israel, while the first confirmed case in Belgium was announced on Friday afternoon.

But as the variant appears to be highly prevalent in the South African community, it does not seem unlikely that it has spread without yet being detectable in other countries.

Past experience has shown that travel bans slow down the spread somewhat, but these measures are unlikely to stop the spread of a new variant altogether.

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