Covid-19 coronavirus: What we know about the ‘Russian variant’ contracted by Air NZ flight attendant

Scientists are investigating how a infected Air New Zealand crew member contracted a little-known variant unrelated to that in Auckland’s Valentine’s Day Covid-19 cluster.

However, they say there’s no great cause for concern over the lineage B.1.1.317, which has been called the “Russian variant” despite being more prevalent in Germany.

It’s known to have been circulating in the UK, Thailand and Switzerland since early December, and was involved in several recent cases in Queensland.

ESR genome sequencing has confirmed the air crew member, who tested positive on Sunday, carried it.

“Unlike other variants, including those first identified in the UK and South Africa, this variant is not currently classified as a variant of concern,” the Ministry of Health said.

“As always, at this stage in the investigation, a range of possible infection sources are being looked into.”

It comes as several people in Queensland were last week confirmed to have the strain, with the cases linked to a Qatar Airways flight that landed in Brisbane last month.

In a joint statement to the Herald, scientists Dr James Hadfield, of Seattle’s Bedford Lab, Dr Joep de Ligt, of ESR, Dr Jemma Geoghegan, of ESR and Otago University, and Dr David Welch, of the University of Auckland, said they saw “no reason for extra concern”.

Since being first observed in March last year, scientists had sequenced 1000 genomes of the variant around the world.

“However little is known about this lineage and it is not considered a ‘variant of concern’ by World Health Organisation or other bodies surveiling these new variants,” the scientists said.

“This lineage is distinct from the recent Auckland community cases (B.1.1.7) which aligns with the epidemiological data and confirms that the two sources are unrelated.

“Yesterday’s genome does contain the Spike 501Y mutation, which is seen in other ‘variant of concern’ lineages, but this has appeared in other lineages as well and on its own is not considered cause for concern.”

Viruses naturally evolve over time.

Each time one infects a person, a virus can replicate its genome, thus creating more opportunities for errors and mutations to occur.

Otago University infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch expected many more variants to emerge as the pandemic wore on.

“And a lot of them, we won’t even know about, because we are only finding out about them from places that are doing genomic sequencing,” he said.

“As for what these will do, some will make no difference, and won’t be more transmissible or cause more severe infections.

“It’s the ones that will be, that we’re obviously more concerned about.”

The UK B.1.1.7 variant, for instance, was 50 per cent more transmissible – and may also come with a longer duration infection, and a higher risk of death.

Professor of Infectious Diseases at the ANU Medical School, Peter Collignon, told Australia’s ABC that the name of a variant essentially came from its origin.

But while B.1.1.317 might have been first discovered in Russia, that didn’t mean it had emerged there.

“We’re becoming very xenophobic — I saw one headline or article from Russia — they’re not worried about the Russian strain, they’re worried about the UK strain,” he said.

“So everybody becomes paranoid that whenever it’s from somewhere else it’s much worse and we need to put up more barriers, yet there’s really no good evidence they spread any different way.”

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