A new variant of the Covid-19 virus known as “Mu” or B1621 which was first identified in Colombia in January 2021, is being carefully monitored by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Disclosing this on Tuesday, in its weekly pandemic bulletin, the global health agency said Mu which has been classified as a “variant of interest”, has mutations that indicate a risk of resistance to vaccines even as it noted that further studies were needed to better understand it.
“The Mu variant has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape,” the bulletin said.
There is widespread concern over the emergence of new virus mutations as infection rates spike globally again, with the highly transmissible Delta variant taking hold – especially among the unvaccinated – and in regions where anti-virus measures have been relaxed.
All viruses, including the Covid-19 virus, mutate over time and most mutations have little or no effect on the properties of the virus.
But certain mutations can impact the properties of a virus and influence how easily it spreads, the severity of the disease it causes, and its resistance to vaccines, drugs and other countermeasures.
The WHO currently identifies four Covid-19 variants of concern, including Alpha, which is present in 193 countries, and Delta, present in 170 countries.
After being detected in Colombia, Mu has since been reported in other South American countries and in Europe.
The WHO said its global prevalence has declined to below 0.1 per cent among sequenced cases. In Colombia, however, it is at 39 per cent.
In a related event, South African scientists are monitoring another variant called C.1.2. that can mutate almost twice as fast as other global variants.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases, NICD, said that frequency of C.1.2. remains relatively low, however, it has so far been found in under three per cent of genomes sequenced since it was first picked up in May – although this has increased from 0.2 to two per cent in July.
The variant has been detected in all South Africa’s provinces, as well as in China, Britain, New Zealand and Mauritius.
This development comes as the WHO warned that that more people could die from Covid in Europe by December, sounding the alarm over rising infections and stagnating vaccine rates across the continent.
The warning came as the world passed the grim milestone of 4.5 million deaths from Covid since the start of the pandemic.
The head of WHO Europe said that infections and deaths were on the rise again in Europe, particularly in poorer nations in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“Last week, there was an 11 per cent increase in the number of deaths in the region – one reliable projection is expecting 236,000 deaths in Europe, by December 1,” WHO Europe director Hans Kluge said.
Europe has already registered around 1.3 million Covid-19 deaths to date. Of WHO Europe’s 53 member states, 33 have registered an incidence rate greater than 10 per cent in the past two weeks, Kluge said, mostly in poorer countries.