Why is this so troubling?

It is said to be the worst variant of the genome they’ve ever seen and experts are concerned by its many mutations.

The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. 

Experts are concerned that the new vaccines could be 40% less effective than they were in the best case scenario.

It is due to the fact that so many changes in B.1.1.529 depend on spike protein.

With the current vaccines, the body recognizes the strain of virus in the older version.

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness

Botswana’s variant contains around 50 mutations, and over 30 are spike proteins. The body recognizes the older version of the virus’ spike protein with the current vaccines. However, the changes may change the appearance of the spike protein so that the body’s immune systems is unable to fight off the virus. Three of its spike mutations, H665Y and N679K (P681H), allow it to enter cells faster. It is also missing NSP6, a membrane protein that was present in older iterations. Experts think this could make the virus more dangerous. Two mutations (R203K, G204R) have been identified in the virus. These two mutations have been found in all known variants and are associated with infectiousness. 

However, because of the different appearance of the spike protein on this new strain, your immune system may not be able to recognize it or fight it.

There are also mutations that can be found in the Delta variant, which allow for it to spread faster.

Experts caution that they may not discover how infective the virus really is for two to three weeks. 

Which mutations can the variant be subject to? 

Botswana has over 50 mutations, with more than 30 on the spike protein.

It is mutated P681H, N679K that are “rarely seen together” and might make it more jab-resistant.

This mutation, together with H655Y may make it more difficult for viruses to enter the cells.

N501Y, a mutation that may increase the transmissibility of the strain, was first seen in Beta and Kent’s Alpha variants.

R203K and G204R are two other possible mutations that could make this virus more dangerous. However, a missing mutation from the NSP6 variant could lead to an increase in its transmission.  

Additionally, it has mutations K417N & E484A similar to South African variants of the ‘Beta’ variety. These made it easier to resist vaccines.

But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape. 

The mutations that it also contains are Q476S, T478K. Q493K. Q498R. Y505H. Their significance, however, is unclear. 

Are you concerned about a different type of problem?

The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.

The WHO has concluded that the mutations it exhibits are capable of spreading faster and causing more severe diseases or preventing vaccines from being administered.

Is the variant known? 

It has been detected in South Africa (Botswana), Hong Kong, Israel, Israel, and Belgium so far. 

Many cases were seen in Gauteng (a north-east South African province where Johannesburg is situated).

Hong Kong uploaded the first case to GISAID’s international variant database. It was discovered by someone who had traveled to South Africa from Hong Kong.

There have not been any cases in the UK. However, scientists don’t sequence all positive Covid samples in the UK. Not everyone who gets the virus will be tested.

The variant could also be spread to people outside of Britain.

What’s the UK doing to combat this variant?

Six countries were added to the red-list by Health Secretary last night, starting at noon on Friday 26 November.

Red-listed countries include South Africa, Botswana Eswatini Lesotho Namibia, Botswana and Botswana. All direct flights between these countries and the UK will be banned.

Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.

Arriving from these countries on Sunday after 4am, anyone must remain in managed quarantine hotels for 10 nights and submit to a Covid testing on the second or third day.

The UK Health Security Agency also classified B.1.1.529 a Variant Under Investigation. This means that it contains worrying mutations.

If it proves to be more dangerous, more serious or to make medicines and vaccines less effective, experts will conduct an assessment. 

What was the first place that B.1.1.529 appeared?

Hong Kong posted the first case on November 23 to its international variant databank GISAID. Person carrying this variant traveled to Hong Kong from South Africa.

The UK was the first nation to detect the threat of the virus and alert other nations. 

Since then, there have been 77 confirmed cases in South Africa, 2 in Hong Kong, and 3 in Botswana.

Today, Israeli health chiefs announced that they had two confirmed cases and one suspected case of B.1.1.529 in Israel. In Belgium, there are currently two cases.

Experts think the strain could have been originated in Botswana. However, there are not many positive samples from continental Africa so we may never know where it came from.

Francois Balloux from University College London said that the virus was likely to have emerged in a lingering condition in an immunocompromised person, perhaps someone suffering undiagnosed AIDS.

Because the immune system is weak, infections can persist for many months in patients who have weakened immunity. The virus has time to develop mutations to make it more difficult to fight.

Can I feel protected by a booster?

Researchers have said that Covid vaccines could be 40% less effective due to the new strain.

They said that the emergence of the mutant version makes it more crucial to obtain a booster shot as soon as people are eligible.

Neutralizing antibodies are produced by vaccines, and they provide the most protection against new viruses. Experts say that more antibodies are better.

Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’ 

What will be the next step in learning more information about this variant?

Weeks remain before we have data about how transmissible this variant is, and the impact it has on deaths and hospitalizations.

South Africa has received help from the UK to collect this information. It is believed that South Africa will be able to learn more about transmissibility by two to three weeks.

They may not know the details of hospitalizations or deaths for at least four to six more weeks.

Is this the name of the variant?

One day after its discovery in Hong Kong, the strain was named scientifically as B.1.1.529.

Alpha, Beta (Delta), Gamma and Delta have so far been officially given a name.

The variant Omicron was named by experts at the World Health Organization (November 26).