New 'Heavily Mutated' COVID Variant Compels WHO to Call Special Meeting

The World Health Organization (WHO) has scheduled a special Friday meeting to discuss a newly emergent and "heavily mutated" variant of COVID-19 that could bypass immunity provided by vaccines and prior infections.

The meeting will discuss what the variant—referred to as B.1.1.529—could potentially mean for vaccines, testing, emerging symptoms and medicinal therapies. WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, made the announcement during a WHO livestream, CNBC reported.

If the WHO's virus evolution working group decides that the variant is one of interest that may become more widespread, the group will assign it a Greek name, Van Kerkhove added.

World Health Organization covid variant mutated immunity
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called a special meeting to discuss a "heavily mutated" variant of COVID-19 that could bypass vaccines and prior infection. Above, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following a WHO emergency meeting to discuss whether the coronavirus outbreak that began in China constitutes an international health emergency, on January 30, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Getty

Ten cases involving the variant were detected in Botswana, South Africa, and Hong Kong, The Guardian reported.

"We don't know very much about this [variant] yet," Van Kerkhove said. "What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves."

The variant spread rapidly through South Africa's Gauteng province, a landlocked region in the country's northeast. The province contains Pretoria, the country's executive capital city, as well as Johannesburg, the country's most populated city.

South African scientists detected more than 30 mutations to the variant's spike protein. The spike proteins on the surface of the virus enable it to attach to human cells, infecting them and allowing the virus to replicate through the body.

The mutations of the virus may increase its contagiousness or make it capable of bypassing vaccines and any immunity from prior infections, the WHO said in a briefing.

Some of the mutations are so new that scientists have never seen them until now. As a result, medical experts aren't yet sure how the mutations may affect the variant's transmission or symptoms.

Greg Dore, an Australian doctor specializing in infectious diseases, wrote in a Wednesday night tweet that the variant "has mutations associated [with] reduced vaccine effectiveness."

However, he said the variant may not yet be highly transmissible. "Time to monitor, not time to panic," his tweet added.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases, called the new variant "worrying."

"I've not said that [a variant is worrying] since Delta," he wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus likely result in high level escape from neutralising antibodies."