Advice on how to protect yourself against the coronavirus can be seen on a poster standing in the market square in Brügge, Belgium. In the background, the town hall with the Belfry, an 80-metre-high tower, one of the city’s landmarks.
Bernd Thissen | picture alliance | Getty Images
Belgium has confirmed a case of the new, heavily mutated variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, according to one of the country’s leading virologists.
Marc Van Ranst, who works with the Rega Institute for Medical Research, said a sample was confirmed as the novel B.1.1.529 variant in a traveler who returned from Egypt on Nov. 11. The patient first showed symptoms on Nov. 22.
Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told reporters that the individual was unvaccinated, according to Reuters.
“It is a suspicious variant. We do not know if it is a very dangerous variant,” Vandenbroucke said, according to Reuters.
Belgium is home to the capital of the European Union in Brussels.
The variant was detected in a small number of samples in South Africa, according to the World Health Organization. There were also reports on Friday morning that cases had been found in Israel and Hong Kong.
The B.1.1.529 variant contains 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to enter the body, scientist Tulio de Oliveira said Thursday during a briefing held by the South African Department of Health. The new strain has roughly 50 mutations in total, including 10 to the receptor binding domain, the part of the virus that first comes in contact with cells.
The highly contagious delta variant, which the WHO says accounts for 99% of the world’s Covid cases, has just two mutations to the receptor binding domain.
Health officials caution that many of these mutations could lead to increased antibody resistance and transmissibility, limiting the effectiveness of Covid vaccines. The WHO convened a meeting Friday to determine how Covid therapeutics and immunizations might be affected by the new variant.
The WHO’s virus evolution working group will determine whether to list the new strain as a variant of interest or a variant of concern. The variant of concern label is reserved for Covid mutations that are more contagious, more virulent and more skilled at evading public health measures, vaccines and therapeutics.
The emerging variant arrives in Europe amid an already devastating Covid surge linked to the delta strain. Europe saw more than 2.4 million new Covid cases over the week ended Nov. 21, an increase of 11% from the previous seven days, according to the WHO’s most recent epidemiological update.
Europe represented 67% of all Covid cases reported globally during that span, the WHO measured.
Belgium tightened restrictions this week to stop the spread of the virus, requiring people to work from home four days a week through the middle of December. Austria started its fourth lockdown of the pandemic on Monday, with a nationwide vaccine mandate scheduled to take effect on Feb. 1. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has said that the lockdown will last for at most 20 days.
Slovakia followed suit Wednesday with a two-week lockdown, closing restaurants and select businesses in hopes of curbing the nation’s latest Covid outbreak, Reuters reported. The Netherlands entered a partial lockdown on Saturday as well, requiring some companies to shut early and preventing the public from attending sporting events for three weeks.
The U.K. has already halted flights from six countries in the region, and European Union member states have collectively agree to pause travel to and from southern Africa.
Singapore is also banning flights from southern Africa, with Japan increasing border controls for travelers from the region.