Scientists are closely tracking a coronavirus variant with a 'worrying' number of mutations. They don't yet know if it's more infectious.

A man receives the COVID-19 vaccine on October 12, 2021 at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Gaborone, Botswana, Tshekiso Tebalo / Xinhua / Getty Images
A variant with an "alarming" number of mutations has been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
Experts fear that his mutations could help him avoid antibodies produced by vaccines and treatments.
It was discovered 82 times (as of Thursday). At the moment it is being closely monitored.
Scientists and health officials are closely following a variant of the coronavirus with a "worrying" number of mutations discovered in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
The variant, named B.1.1.529, has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, called the spike protein - the target for existing vaccines and antibody treatments. A higher number of mutations in the spike protein can change shape, meaning that there is a greater risk that these vaccines and treatments will not be effective.
Experts fear the mutations will make the virus more contagious and help it avoid the antibody reaction, but this has not been proven. It's not yet clear whether the mutations make the virus more deadly.
COVID-19 vaccines remain a "critical tool" in protecting against serious diseases, Tulio de Oliveira, director of the South African Center for Disease Response and Innovation, said in a briefing Thursday.
Dr. Tom Peacock, virologist at Imperial College London, who reported the variant on Github Tuesday, said the high number of mutations could be of "real concern" and that there were combinations of mutations that he had never seen before in a single variant had seen the virus that caused COVID-19.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said in a statement to the Science Media Center on Wednesday that the large number of mutations that appear to have appeared in a single outbreak suggest the variant may evolve from a chronic one Infection in an immunocompromised individual.
B.1.1.529 was first discovered on November 11th and sequenced 82 times - 77 cases in South Africa, four cases in neighboring Botswana and one case in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong case was attributed on Thursday to a person who had traveled to South Africa, according to the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Peacock warned that the "export to Asia" might suggest it is more widespread than the sequences alone suggest.
Professor Adrian Puren, acting managing director of NICD, said in a statement on Thursday that NICD experts are “working overtime” to understand the new variant and its possible effects.
Ravi K Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, said on Twitter on Wednesday that variant B.1.1.529 is "worrying, and I haven't said that since Delta". The highly infectious Delta variant, which is the most common variant worldwide, has 11 to 15 mutations in its spike protein and some of them help avoid the immune response, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Please get vaccinated and freshened up and mask yourself in public as the mutations in this virus are likely to cause large amounts of neutralizing antibodies to escape," Gupta said.
Dr. Michelle Groome, director of public health surveillance and response at NICD, said that individual compliance with preventive measures can have a "great collective impact" in limiting the spread of the new variant. "This means people should get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, keep social distance and gather in well-ventilated rooms," she said.
The World Health Organization and health officials from South Africa, where most of the cases were discovered, are due to meet on Friday to discuss the variant.
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