NEIGHBOURING South Africa has recorded a new COVID-19 variant with an extremely high number of mutations, a development that has put Zimbabwe at risk of catching the flu bug ahead of the forthcoming festive season.
A spike in COVID-19 cases and fatalities early this year was attributed to returnees from South Africa during the festive season last year.
Scientists said the new B.1.1.529 variant had 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that most vaccines use to prime the immune system against COVID-19.
Health expert and Medical and Dental Private Practitioners Association of Zimbabwe president Johannes Marisa said the development was scary and could spell disaster for Zimbabwe.
“I am actually worried that South Africa has been hit by the new variant. From the look of things, we can conclude that South Africa has entered the fourth wave, but it is still in its infancy. The last two to three days are pointing to that, so it is a scary development,” he said.
“We are in trouble as we go into the festive season, very big trouble actually and we have to be alert now because if one is caught offside, especially during the first days of December, we may be faced with a serious challenge.
“The laxity and complacency means disaster ahead and I see people moving around without face masks, no observing of social distancing and so on.”
COVID-19 national taskforce chief co-ordinator Agnes Mahomva was not picking calls and was yet to respond to messages sent to her mobile number.
Zimbabwe was hit by a serious second wave early this year, which was attributed to returning citizens coming for the festive season.
Hundreds of people, including senior government officials such as Transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza, Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo and former Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services boss Paradzai Zimondi succumbed to COVID-19 in January this year.
Only 10 cases in three countries have been confirmed by genomic sequencing, but the variant has sparked serious concern among researchers because a number of the mutations may help the virus to evade immunity.
The variant was first recorded in Botswana, where three cases have now been sequenced.
Six more have been confirmed in South Africa and one in Hong Kong from a traveller returning from South Africa.
Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, posted details of the new variant on a website noting that the “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggests this could be of real concern”.
In South Africa, experts are unsure if the current COVID-19 vaccines in that country will work against the new variant.
Professor Alex van den Heever of the Wits School of Governance said it was still early days, so the question was on whether this variant escaped the current vaccines in South Africa.
“It is worrying that such a variant has occurred, but I think it is also inevitable in a way that we are going to see this. The real question is whether past variants and vaccines will still protect us against this particular variant. And I haven’t really seen any analysis of that yet,” he said.