This new COVID-19 variant only has 10 cases, but here’s why a U.K. researcher is concerned

TORONTO — A scientist in the United Kingdom is taking note of a COVID-19 variant originating from Botswana with an astonishing number of mutations, though there have only been 10 confirmed cases to date.

The B.1.1.529 variant was first discovered in the southern African country and has since been discovered in South Africa and in a traveller in Hong Kong who had been to South Africa.

Although there have only been 10 confirmed cases through sequencing — three in Botswana, six in South Africa and one in Hong Kong — Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London said its potential is worth noting due to its 32 spike mutations.

“Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply,” Peacock wrote on a website for genome sharing. “Also the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern.”

Mutations in the spike protein, or spike mutations, can change the way a virus infects cells and spreads. These mutations can also make it harder to for the body’s immune system to attack it.

The World Health Organization currently lists B.1.1.529 as a “variant under monitoring,” which is below the agency’s classification of “variants of interest” and “variants of concern.”

In a Twitter thread about the variant, Peacock called the spike mutation profile “awful,” but emphasized the low case numbers make it only something to keep an eye on for now.

“Worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” he said.

“It’s possible this is just an odd cluster that isn’t very transmissible. I hope that’s the case,” he wrote in another tweet.

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