Corona! KZN scientists discover most dangerous Covid-19 variant that may have killed John Magufuli

Corona! KZN scientists discover most dangerous Covid-19 variant that may have killed John Magufuli

30 January 2020, North Rhine-Westphalia, Essen: Kübra Yilmaz, nurse at the infection ward of the university hospital, in protective clothing and with a breathing mask, looks at two smear tubes. In Essen, the city and university hospital feel well prepared for patients infected with the novel coronavirus. Photo: Bernd Thissen/dpa

THE Kwazulu-natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) team has discovered the most mutated Covid-19 variant, with experts calling for further support of genomic surveillance.

Local scientists submitted a report late last month on Angola’s first genomic surveillance results.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, Krisp’s director, said the variant was discovered on three Tanzanian travellers in Angola, which was worrying as little to no Covid-19 data was being released by Tanzania.

“It has 31 amino acids mutations, 11 spike protein mutations and three deletions in the N-terminal domain. When compared with other variants of concern (VOC) and variants of interest (VOI), this is the most divergent one. We reported this as a new VOI given the constellation of mutations with known or suspected biological significance, specifically resistance to neutralising antibodies and potentially increased transmissibility. Whilst we have only detected three cases with it, this warrants urgent investigation as the source country, Tanzania, has a largely undocumented epidemic and few public health measures in place to prevent spread within and out of the country,” De Oliveira said.

Infectious diseases specialist Krisp group leader Richard Lessells said the variant had not crossed the borders into South Africa.

“So far we have identified only the three sequences of this variant and to the best of our knowledge, it hasn’t been reported from any other country. We have received additional samples from Angola and are currently generating and analysing data. We have no idea if it is still new or has been the dominant variant in Tanzania, and that’s why we call for urgent attention as we really need to get a better understanding of the virus and the epidemiology in Tanzania,” Lessells said.

Following the discovery of the 501Y. V2 VOC, the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa partnered with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the African

Society of Laboratory Medicine through the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative to strengthen SARS-COV-2 genomic surveillance in order to rapidly characterise the spread of current and other emerging VOCS and VOIS.

A pre-print manuscript, titled “A novel variant of interest of SARS-COV-2 with multiple spike mutations detected through travel surveillance in Africa”, was published on health sciences preprint server medrxiv.

It was a collaboration between authors from the KRISP team, Angolan health ministry, Africa CDC, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, the University of Oxford and UCT.

According to the global Covid-19 tracker by the Johns Hopkins University in the US, Tanzania had not experienced a Covid-19 death or new cases since since May 2020.

Throughout the pandemic the Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who died last month speculated from Covid-19, had denied the pandemic and dismissed Covid-19 vaccines. There is also a strong belief that this deadliest Covid-19 varriant is the one that may have killed the Magufuli.

Tanzania stopped releasing data on Covid-19 infections and opened up the economy. The stance taken by Magufuli garnered much criticism from neighbouring nations and the World Health Organization as evidence has suggested that many citizens had contracted the virus.

“When I spoke with health minister Zweli Mkhize, he mentioned that our country is not in a position to comment on this as this involves two other health departments (Angola and Tanzania) and we followed all the discussions with the appropriate diplomatic process via the Africa Union and Africa CDC,” De Oliveira said.

Co-chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19, Professor Koleka Mlisana, said: “We advise the South African national Department of Health and can therefore not comment on how other countries respond to the pandemic, as the MAC.”

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