We’re very, very sorry to bring this to your attention but a new COVID-19 variant called B.1.1.529 has been detected and scientists are concerned.

So far the variant has only been confirmed in about 50 people, but they’re already across at least three countries – South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.

It was first detected in South Africa, and on Friday the UK has banned travellers entering from six countries in the region in response to the growing concerns over the variant’s transmissibility and potential to threaten vaccine programs.

Scientists have said B.1.1.529’s mutations are unusual, which means it could be better at evading the body’s immune response – what vaccines give us.

It is also even more transmissible than the world-dominating Delta, which, as we saw in Melb and Syd, was much, MUCH speedier than the original Alpha variant back in 2019-20.

Scientists believe as many as 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng could be B.1.1.529.

So why is it worse?

The new strain has around 32 different spike mutations – twice as many as Delta. Spike proteins are those lil horns on the virus’s exterior that play a crucial role in penetrating host cells and initiating infection. This is what many of the COVID-19 vaccines target by instructing our immune systems to make our own version of the spike protein, which then prompts antibody production.

But because so many of the proteins are different in this variant compared to the original that the vaccines were based on, scientists are warning vaccines could be slightly less effective against it.

To be clear, they are still the best tool (pretty much the only tool now) we have to defend ourselves against serious illness or death from the virus, so the health advice is still to get vaccinated obviously.

What does this mean for Australia?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that while the new variant “is not of concern” for Australia, just yet that could change.

The variant has also not been given the title “variant of concern” in the UK, but a senior UK Health Security Agency expert said, “This is the worst variant we have seen so far.”

Scientists are working to understand B.1.1.529’s impact on vaccination resistance and within around two to eight weeks will be able to confirm its current rate of spread. We’ll know more then.

But as Australia opens to the world, and as immunity gradually wanes before people get their booster shots, concerns are mounting over a potential fourth wave in Australia.

While Australia’s high vaccination rate is a strong defence, immunocompromised people and children who are yet to be eligible for vaccines are still at risk.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said  there are no plans to change travel restrictions between Australia and South Africa.
“At this point in time there’s very little traffic between South Africa and Australia and we also happen to be highly vaccinated,” he said.
“But when tough decisions have needed to be made in the past we haven’t shied away, and we won’t shy away now.”

But with impoverished countries the victims of vaccine inequity South Africa is not expected to reach Australia’s current vaccine rate until September 2023 — the windows are open for more mutations in future.

Image: Getty Images / Universal Images Group