Europe in Fear of the New Covid “Botswana Mutation”: What do we know about it
As of today, governments across Europe are rushing to step up their defenses against a possible new coronavirus outbreak after South Africa announced the discovery of a new strain of Covid-19 that scientists fear could thwart the pandemic effort.
In recent weeks, the continent has been gripped by a sharp rise in the number of patients, as well as violent riots, fighting booster programs and dramatic lockdowns to stop the tide as the number of deaths exceeds 1.5 million and it again becomes the global epicenter of the relentless pandemic.
Scientists are now vying to understand the impact of the new, highly mutated strain, which they fear is more contagious than Delta and which has brought the world to its knees again a year after the virus first appeared in central China.
"This is the most significant variant we have encountered so far, and urgent research is currently underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and susceptibility to vaccines," said Jenni Harris, head of the British Health Agency.
The revolt in Europe is growing
Ahead of a report by South African scientists on Thursday, European countries had already stepped up campaigns to boost immunity, imposed stricter restrictions and pointed the finger at the unvaccinated as cases multiplied to record levels.
Authorities in the Netherlands are preparing for new riots ahead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's statement expected today to tighten the partial ban, as the country faces a critical shortage of hospital beds and infections are reaching record levels.
For four days in a row, there were riots against the lockdown in the country, led by people whom Rutte described as "idiots", the worst being in the port city of Rotterdam, where police opened fire on the rebels and wounded five people.
"We are watching with open eyes and ears and we are prepared," Rotterdam police spokesman Geiss van Niemwegen told AFP.
In recent days, Germany, the Czech Republic and Portugal, which has one of the highest levels of vaccination in the world, have announced new measures to stem the tide.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued an urgent warning to the country's future government, saying "every day is important" as the number of deaths in the country exceeds 100,000.
Europe is stepping up its vaccination campaign to counter the growing number of cases before winter.
On Thursday, France gave all adults the opportunity to get booster vaccines, and the European Union Medicines Agency approved vaccines for children aged 5 to 11.
Scientists and health officials in Britain and South Africa have expressed concern that the new version - whose code name is expected to be announced by the WHO today - could destroy much of the hard-won success against the virus over the summer. The WHO said it was "closely monitoring" the reported variety and was expected to determine whether it should be classified as "of interest" or "alarming".
The researchers said the new variant B.1.1.529 had at least 10 mutations, compared to two in Delta and three in Beta.
"The concern is that when there are so many mutations, it could affect the behavior of the virus," said Maria Van Kerchow, WHO's technical director for Covid-19, at a virtual press briefing.
South African Health Minister Joe Faala described the strain as a "major threat".
According to Health Minister Sajid Javid, the discovery has made British scientists "deeply concerned" as it could make current vaccines less effective. In the first international move to protect against its spread, Britain said it would ban travel from six South African countries.
The news of the discovery of the variant shocked investors yesterday afternoon, as shares in Tokyo fell by 3%.
Shanghai closes schools
In Asia, covid's tough zero-spread policy has forced Shanghai to cancel hundreds of flights and close some schools after three local cases were reported, health officials said today.
China has gained extensive experience in the field of "dynamic zero covid", said Zhang Wenhong, head of the expert group on coronavirus prevention in Shanghai, at a briefing on Thursday. "So our strategy will not change."
Elsewhere, however, there was more positive news.
The Philippines said today that it would welcome vaccinated foreign tourists from countries identified as low-risk next week.
But the aftermath of the pandemic has led even the most ardent skeptics on the world stage to adopt some antivirus measures.
"As far as I'm concerned, we shouldn't have a carnival in February," Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said in an interview Thursday, with a rare intention of social distancing.
What do we know so far about the Botswana mutation?
A publication by Greek professor Elias Mosialos in Kathimerini mentions a new variant of the coronavirus, the so-called "Botswana mutation", answering 10 key questions about what we know so far about its appearance, which has caused concern in the scientific community.
Mosialos lists the data so far, stressing the need for "continuous epidemiological surveillance" and noting that panic should be avoided until the dog receives more information.
The professor said: "Of course, it is not correct to call it the Botswana variant, because although its existence has been established in Botswana, the variant may have started in another African country. At the beginning of the pandemic I had indicated that if no mass vaccination of the majority of the world's population, the possibility of new options, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, will be high. Unfortunately, in Africa only 6.5% of the population is fully vaccinated."
Initially, there were 4 cases in Botswana of vaccinated people. This does not mean that there are no more cases of both vaccinated and unvaccinated. It is also not true what is written in the international media that the 4 cases concern HIV patients. The National Commission for the Treatment of the Disease in Botswana denied this in a statement. There are also several cases in South Africa and one in Hong Kong involving a passenger from South Africa.
Why are health authorities in Africa and other countries concerned?
In the new variant, there are simultaneously 32 mutations in the viral spike protein. As it has also been found in vaccinated people, there are concerns that vaccines may not be effective against this option. However, infections occur in both vaccinated and Delta variants. This is not something new. The important thing is whether the new option will lead to a significant number of serious infections. We know that vaccines are extremely effective in treating Delta and preventing serious infections in the majority of those vaccinated. However, a small percentage of those vaccinated, about 10-20%, get a mild illness.
However, health authorities are concerned because they fear that the combination of the 32 mutations could make the new variant both more dangerous (increased incidence of severe infections and increased mortality) and more contagious.
Several of the 32 mutations are already known because they have been found in previous variants. But there are also new mutations that coexist with the already known ones. The new variant may have found ground in South Africa because the Delta was not widespread. The same thing has happened with other options for some time in the past, but they have disappeared in competition with Delta.
"We need constant epidemiological surveillance and, in my opinion, a ban on flights from some African countries until we get a better idea of the situation," said Professor Mosialos. "I also point out that in many other cases we were very worried, but in the end, with the exception of the Alpha and Delta options, we did not face any particular problems. Whenever the new version is a little more dangerous, but less contagious than Delta, then it may not be a big problem.
"Finally, let me emphasize," the professor concludes, "that the role of health authorities and public health experts is not to create panic. Their role is to identify problems in a timely manner, to analyze them impartially with an interdisciplinary approach, but also to take timely action when necessary."
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