Concerned scientists have raised the alarm over a new Covid-19 variant with an "extremely high number" of mutations which could cause fresh chaos.
Fears are growing after a brand new Covid-19 strain which "could be of real concern" was detected by scientists.
The new variant was first picked up by Imperial College London virologist Dr Tom Peacock, who shared details on a genome-sharing website.
In a chilling warning, Peacock stated that the "incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern", with cases so far found in three countries.
Those 32 spike mutations have virologists on high alert, as it means it could be harder for existing Covid vaccinations to combat the new strain.
The B.1.1529 variant – which is expected to be dubbed the Nu strain – was first detected in Botswana, southern Africa, on November 11.
Three days later it had spread to South Africa, before jumping to Hong Kong after a 36-year-old man who had recently visited South Africa tested positive in quarantine upon his return on November 13.
Strain could be 'worse than Delta'
In his initial notes, Peacock stated that the fact the strain had spread to Asia "implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply", and that "the extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern".
He also predicted the strain could "escape from most known monoclonal antibodies", indicating it could potentially cause fresh outbreaks across the globe by dodging the body's defences.
In a string of tweets, Peacock doubled down on his warning, insisting the variant "very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile", and said he expected it "would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about" – including the lethal Delta variant which has wreaked havoc across the world.
However, he also offered some words of hope, stating it could end up being an "odd cluster" which was not very transmissible.
"I hope that's the case," he posted.
Variant may have evolved in HIV/Aids patient
Peacock's warnings have caught the attention of experts across the globe, with University College London's Genetics Institute director Professor Francois Balloux stating the new B. 1.1529 variant "carries an unusual constellation of mutations".
In comments supplied to Science Media Centre, Balloux claimed that "given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it is likely it evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/Aids patient".
"It is difficult to know what to make of the carriage of both P681H and N679K. It is a combination we see only exceptionally rarely. I suspect it is generally not 'stable', but it might be so, in combination with other mutations/deletions," he said.
"I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognised by neutralising antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage.
"So far, four strains have been sequenced in a region of Sub-Saharan [Africa] with reasonable surveillance in place. It may be present in other parts of Africa."
But Balloux said while the strain "should be closely monitored and analysed", there was "no reason to get overly concerned" yet, "unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future".
Worst possible timing
The emergence of the potentially dangerous new variant comes just as large parts of the world begin to reopen borders to international travellers after the Covid vaccination rollout.
It also comes just as Europe is being battered by a devastating fourth wave as it approaches the winter months, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning this week the continent remained "in the firm grip" of the pandemic.
In a horrifying prediction, the WHO claimed Europe's Covid death toll could hit 2.2 million this winter, with an extra 700,000 fatalities expected by March 1 on top of the 1.5 million deaths already recorded so far.