A new Covid variant identified in South Africa - with warnings it is worse than Delta - was detected at the New Zealand border.
A new preprint study by South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases warns the new variant has "mutated substantially" and is more mutations away from the original virus detected in Wuhan than any other variant previously detected.
The new variant, known as C. 1.2, first emerged in South Africa but has also been detected here, as well as England, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritius, Portugal and Switzerland.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson confirmed today to the Herald that a case of the new variant was identified at the border in Auckland in late June 2021.
The spokesperson said the individual with C. 1.2 went straight into managed isolation as an overseas traveller and the variant did not enter the community.
"All variants of concern (VoC's) are monitored closely by the ministry and public health staff," the spokesperson said.
"This is one of the main reasons why ESR attempts genome sequences on all positive samples. While this variant may have arrived at the border the infection control measures meant that it did not enter the community.
"New Zealand is in a fortunate position and it's important that we're able to continue to whole genome sequence all cases as this too is a crucial part of New Zealand's surveillance and elimination strategy."
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the new variant was "one for us to watch".
Some aspects of the new variant were concerning, such as the degree of illness it creates and vaccine escape.
The new variant could pose challenges to the first generation of vaccines. Scientists say it's also possible that people in the United Kingdom who were infected with the earlier variants could be vulnerable to reinfection.
Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding said the research suggested the new variant has "mutated substantially" and is "more mutations away from the original virus than any other variant detected so far worldwide".
"What does that mean? It means that C. 1.2 variant has somehow mutated so fast and far that it is now the furthest mutated variant found to date. It has mutated the greatest genetic distance from the original Wuhan 1.0 strain – and implies potential troubles for 1.0 vaccines.
"It gets worse with C. 1.2. It has a 1.7x to 1.8x faster mutation rate than the average of all other variants. The authors note this coincides with the emergence pattern of other really bad VOC variants.
"Consider this a hurricane warning on the next potential variant."
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While the new study is yet to be peer-reviewed, experts say the discovery underlines the risks of abandoning the basics of infection control.
That means things like washing your hands, social distancing and possibly even the use of masks among the vaccinated will continue to be a frontline defence for some time to come.
Genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2 are not new. They have been emerging and circulating around the world throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Variants of concern are classified as those where there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, increased hospitalisations or deaths and reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.
The Delta variant, which is currently locking down New Zealand and causing chaos in Australia and across the globe, is classified as a variant of concern.
The original Alpha strain of Covid that emerged in the United Kingdom and was previously regarded as the most transmissible before Delta arrived is another.
However, there is a category of variant that is regarded as even more severe. Scientists call this a "high consequence variant".
So far, a high consequence variant has not emerged during the pandemic. If it does, it would be a variant with a demonstrated ability to outfox vaccines, more severe clinical disease and increased hospitalisations.
Currently, experts say there are no SARS-CoV-2 variants that rise to the level of high consequence.
"There are currently four Variants Of Concern (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) and four Variants of Interest (Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda) in circulation globally,'' the South African research paper states.
"Of these, Alpha, Beta and Delta have had the most impact globally in terms of transmission and immune evasion, with Delta rapidly displacing other variants to predominate globally, including in South Africa.
"Ongoing genomic surveillance in South Africa also detected an increase in sequences assigned to C. 1 during the third wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections in May 2021, which was unexpected since C. 1, first identified in South Africa was last detected in January 2021. Upon comparison of the mutational profiles between these and older C. 1 sequences [which only contain the D614G mutation within the spike], it was clear that these new sequences had mutated substantially."
The study also found that the C. 1.2 lineage has a mutation rate of about 41.8 mutations per year, which is nearly twice as fast as the current global mutation rate of the other variants.
Covid variant 'more infectious than the Delta variant'
Scientists have been warning for weeks that a new variant that is more infectious than Delta is looming.
Dr Robert Redfield, the former director of the CDC, told Fox News Channel's The Story last month that he predicts it could emerge soon.
"You know we dealt with the UK variant; everyone thought that was pretty bad, it was twice as infectious, but lo and behold three, four months later we had the Delta variant and now it's a dominant variant in the United States," he said.
"Within two, three, four months we're going to have another variant and that variant's going to be more infectious than the Delta variant."
- Additional reporting, NZ Herald