What We Know About Nu B.1.1.529 COVID Variant Ahead of WHO Assessment

The World Health Organization (WHO) is due to hold a meeting to discuss the significance of the COVID variant B.1.1.529 on Friday, amid continued concern over its mutations.

WHO experts are due to convene at around 12 p.m. CET (8 a.m. EST) and their assessments are due to be released afterwards, a WHO spokesperson told Newsweek.

It comes as health agencies worldwide are convening to discuss the variant, with the U.K.'s Health Security Agency (HSA) having released its own technical briefing on Friday morning. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will also publish a threat assessment later on Friday.

According to The Guardian, the WHO will decide today whether to class B.1.1.529 as a variant of "interest" or a variant of "concern."

B.1.1.529, also informally referred to as the "Nu" variant, has made headlines across the world this week after scientists voiced concerns about the huge number of mutations—32 in all—to its spike protein.

SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID, uses this protein to enter human cells and make people sick.

The variant was first sequenced in November thanks to efforts by scientists in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong, with data uploaded to the GISAID reporting network.

As of November 25, B.1.1.529 had been detected in 77 samples collected from South Africa's Gauteng province, as well as in four samples from Botswana and one in Hong Kong, according to Africa's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). There are also reports of a case in Israel.

Although confirmatory laboratory data is yet to be released, scientists have voiced concern that B.1.1.529 could be resistant to immunity and spread faster than other variants.

"The mutations in the B.1.1.529 spike protein are predicted to lead to escape from some of the vaccine-induced antibody responses and cause the virus to infect cells more efficiently," Andrew Pekosz, vice chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, told Newsweek.

He said: "Right now, public health officials should be looking at their virus testing and sequencing capacity and optimizing them to be able to detect this variant as quickly as possible if it does in fact spread globally."

Pekosz said that despite concerns around its immunity resistance, the new variant should serve as a reminder to the general public to get vaccinated and get a booster shot since it is "a safe bet" that the vaccines will still help protect against severe disease. Again, data is currently lacking.

"The more immunity we have in the population, the lower the impact of this variant will be even if it escapes from some of the vaccine induced immunity," he said.

As to what happens next internationally, Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK Genomics UK Consortium and professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has advocated a hard approach.

"There are two approaches to what happens next: wait for more scientific evidence, or act now and row back later if it wasn't required," she told the Science Media Centre. "I believe that it is better to 'go hard, go early and go fast' and apologize if mistaken, than to take an academic view that we need to reach a tipping point in evidence before action is taken.

"The South African Ministry Health and their excellent scientists are to be applauded in their response, their science, and in sounding the alarm to the world."

She said it is not known what sort of effect the variant might have on disease severity.

The U.K.'s HSA on Friday morning acknowledged that the mutations could change the behavior of the virus with regards to immune escape and transmissibility, saying that therapeutic monoclonal antibodies in particular are likely to be affected. Rapid assessment is underway.

Some countries have already taken some measures against the variant. On Thursday, the U.K. announced it was temporarily suspending flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia until Sunday while it puts hotel quarantine measures in place.

Afterwards, people arriving from those countries as of 4 a.m. on Sunday will need to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days.

As of Friday morning, U.S. health authorities have not yet publicly announced any new measures with regards to B.1.1.529.

Newsweek has contacted the U.S. CDC for comment.

COVID lab
A stock photo shows a lab scientist using a microscope whilst wearing personal protective equipment. Limited data on B.1.1.529 suggests the variant may have some resistance to immunity. Niphon Khiawprommas/Getty