The discovery of important new coronavirus variants in the UK and South Africa began with a bet of a bottle of wine.
In mid-November, Tulio de Oliveira, who leads a genetics lab in South Africa, began receiving anxious phone calls from physicians in the Eastern Cape province who were seeing an explosive growth in Covid-19 patients. Hospitals were quickly becoming overrun. The increase had seemingly come out of nowhere.
“It was shocking,” said de Oliveira, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
De Oliveira immediately asked for samples of the virus from patients’ noses so he could genetically sequence them.
In less than a week, he sequenced 16 samples. All 16 had similar mutations – and an unusually high number of mutations.
“I said to myself, ‘there’s something very strange here,’ ” de Oliveira said.
De Oliveira, a prominent virus hunter, had discovered a new variant of the coronavirus.
The 16 samples were hundreds of kilometers apart from each other in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, so he had a hunch the variant was spreading quickly.
To add to the concerns, some of the mutations were in the genes related to the spikes that sit atop the virus. Tests to detect the virus, as well as Covid-19 drugs and vaccines, have targeted those spikes. The concern is that if the spikes change, it’s possible that tests, drugs and vaccines might not work as well.