What we know about the new coronavirus variant now spreading

People head towards the Regal Airport Hotel at Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong on Nov 26, 2021, where a new COVID-19 variant deemed a "major threat" was detected in a traveler from South Africa and who has since passed it on to a local man whilst in quarantine. (PETER  PARKS / AFP)

1 What’s different about this variant?

Scientists say B.1.1.529 carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus’ entry into cells in the body. It’s also what is targeted by vaccines. Researchers are still trying to determine whether it is more transmissible or more lethal than previous strains.

2 Where did it come from?

There’s only speculation so far. One scientist at the UCL Genetics Institute in London said it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient. South Africa has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the most in the world. The beta variant, a mutation identified last year in South Africa, also may have come from an HIV-infected person.

In the HKSAR, a traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant, and another case was identified in a person quarantined in a hotel room across the hall

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3 How widespread is it?

As of Thursday there were almost 100 cases detected in South Africa, where it’s become the dominant strain among new infections. Early PCR test results showed that 90 percent of 1,100 new cases reported Wednesday in the South African province that includes Johannesburg were caused by the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities. In neighboring Botswana, officials recorded four cases on Monday in people who were fully vaccinated. In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, a traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant, and another case was identified in a person quarantined in a hotel room across the hall. Israel has also identified one case in a man who recently traveled to Malawi.

4 How have markets responded?

News of the new variant roiled financial markets Friday as stocks, treasury yields and oil sank – with travel-related stocks among the biggest decliners. The yen, typically seen as a safe haven asset, rose 0.6 percent against the dollar, while the South African rand slid to a one-year low. Equities in the US, which will resume trading after the Thanksgiving holiday, are set to open lower, with December contracts on the S&P 500 Index slumping 1.7 percent, the most since September. European stocks dropped the most since July.

5 How are other countries responding?

The UK issued a temporary ban on flights from six African countries, and others followed suit. Singapore is restricting entry for people who have been in South Africa and nearby nations within the last 14 days, while the European Union proposed halting air travel from southern Africa. Australia said it wouldn’t rule out tightening border rules for travelers from southern Africa if the situation escalates, while India stepped up screening of incoming travelers from South Africa, Botswana and the HKSAR. 

News of the new variant roiled financial markets Friday as stocks, treasury yields and oil sank – with travel-related stocks among the biggest decliners

READ MORE: Stocks lurch lower, bonds jump as virus variant spooks investors

6 How worrisome is this variant?

It’s too early to say. The World Health Organization said there are fewer than 100 whole genomic sequences of the new strain available, which could add to the time it takes to study how it compares to previous strains and its impact on COVID-19 therapies and vaccines. Viruses mutate all the time, with the changes sometimes making the virus weaker or sometimes making it more adept at evading antibodies and infecting humans.

7 What should we look out for next? 

The WHO has called a meeting on Friday to discuss B.1.1.529 and decide if it will be officially designated a variant of interest or concern. If it does, it will receive a Greek letter name under the WHO naming scheme, likely the letter “nu.” More details on how infectious and lethal the variant is should also come as researchers continue to look into data around B.1.1.529.