Worrying Nu B.1.1.529 COVID Variant May Have Emerged in Person With Weak Immune System

The new B.1.1.529 variant of COVID might have emerged from someone with a chronic infection and weakened immune system, scientists have suggested.

The variant has attracted much attention over the past few days with multiple experts voicing concern about the 32 mutations present in its spike protein. The SARS-CoV-2 virus uses its spike protein to infect human cells.

While experimental data on the variant is currently lacking, it is thought that B.1.1.529 could have advantages over other variants and dodge the body's immune system defenses.

Its origin has also been suggested, despite the fact the variant was first reported on just days ago using data posted to the GISAID reporting network.

Dr. Jacob Glanville, a computational immunologist and CEO of Centivax, tweeted on Friday morning: "The new South Africa variant yet again may have come from an immunocompromised subject who enabled rapid accumulation of mutations during chronic infection.

"We need to be getting COVID-19 chronic infection subjects on antivirals to limit this or we are back to square one."

Other scientists have echoed the point, including Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.

He told the Science Media Centre (SMC): "B.1.1529 is a new lineage that has been found in Botswana that carries an unusual constellation of mutations.

"Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient."

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, told the SMC that B.1.1.529 "has signatures of cumulative mutation indicating that it emerged in a chronic infection."

Viruses mutate all the time in people they infect. Often, these mutations don't actually benefit the virus at all and simply die off. Sometimes, a mutation or several mutations will prove beneficial to the virus and make it better at spreading or dodging the immune system.

It should be noted that data on B.1.1.529 is still limited and it is too early for an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.

On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) is due to hold a meeting to discuss whether B.1.1.529 should be classified as a variant of "interest" or a variant of "concern." This latter classification would put it in the same category as the Delta variant. Some have speculated it may also get the Greek designation "Nu." It is not officially named this yet.

The U.K. government on Thursday announced it would issue a temporary ban on flights arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia between midday on Friday until 4 a.m. on Sunday in order to put hotel quarantine infrastructure in place.

Person wearing face mask
A stock photo shows someone wearing a face mask. B.1.1.529 is causing concern amongst scientists due to its mutations. Rattankun Thongbun/Getty