Even though some of the genetic changes in the new variant appear worrying, it’s unclear whether they will pose a public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.
“We don’t know if this new variant could get a toehold in regions where delta is,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this variant will do where there are other variants circulating.” To date, delta is by far the most dominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest public database.
How did the new variant arise?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in someone who was infected but could then not clear the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve,” in a scenario similar to how experts think the alpha variant — which was first identified in England — also emerged, by mutating in an immune-compromised person.
Are the travel restrictions being imposed by some countries justified?
The Biden administration has already announced new travel restrictions that include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia. The policy does not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, but they must still test negative for the coronavirus prior to travel. About a dozen other countries have taken similar action, including the U.K. and some countries in Europe.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent” and would buy authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious diseases expert at Imperial College London.