The scientist in a protective suit holds and compares two different coronaviruses of different colors in his hands.
Aitor Diago | Moment | Getty Images
Viruses are constantly mutating, and it’s no surprise to experts that the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 has experienced several significant mutations as the virus replicates and spreads.
However, a new strain of the virus that has emerged in South Africa is cause for concern. Like a variant discovered in the UK in recent months, the variant created in South Africa is proving to be far more transferable.
While scientists have found it easier to spread, they don’t believe either of the two new variants is more deadly. However, being more communicable means more people can become infected, which can result in more serious infections and more deaths.
Questions are now being raised as to whether the coronavirus vaccines, which have developed rapidly over the past year, the western front-runners developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, will be effective against significant mutations of the virus than those identified in South Africa .
While scientists believe the British variant is unlikely to affect the effectiveness of the vaccines currently being rolled out in the West, there is greater uncertainty about the South African tribe.
Experts would like to point out that despite research into it and the British variety, we still don’t know much about the new strain, and they urge people not to panic. We know the following so far:
What do we know about the variant?
On December 18, South Africa announced detection of a new variant of the coronavirus that spread rapidly in three of the country’s provinces and became the dominant tribe in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.
South Africa named the variant “501Y.V2” because of the N501Y mutation they found in the spike protein that the virus uses to enter cells in the body. This mutation has also been found in the new strain the UK identified in December (but which is likely to have been in circulation since September), both of which make the virus more transmissible and more efficient in spreading it.
As authorities in the UK and South Africa alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the new mutations in December – both countries are known for their genomic sequencing, or “monitoring” of the virus – the WHO noted that both variants were found in the UK (named “VOC-202012/01”, where VOC stands for “Variant of Concern”) and South Africa share the N501Y mutation. They are different.
The variant in South Africa carries two other mutations in the spike protein (including E484K and K417N) that are not present in the British strain, and experts said these could affect the way vaccines against Covid-19 work.
How concerned should we be?
Some experts and health officials are concerned about the South African variant now commonly known as “501.V2”. So far, it has only been found in a few cases, the WHO noted on Tuesday, but in an increasing number of countries, including Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Japan, Austria and Zambia.
Several countries have banned flights from South Africa (and the UK) due to the new variants of the virus to stop its spread.
Earlier this week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the variant found in South Africa was of particular concern. “I am incredibly concerned about the South African variant and that is why we have taken the measures we have been taking to restrict all flights from South Africa,” he told the BBC’s “Today” program on Monday.
“This is a very, very significant problem … and it’s even more of a problem than the new variant in the UK,” he said without further explanation.
On Tuesday, former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb that vaccinating Americans against Covid is more critical than ever, especially since the new South African variant seems to inhibit antibody drugs and is spreading elsewhere.
“The South African variant is very worrying at the moment as it appears that it is circumventing some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs,” Gottlieb told CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” on Tuesday.
“Right now, this burden seems to be widespread in South America and Brazil, the two parts of the world that are currently in their summer but are also experiencing a very dense epidemic and that is worrying.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted on Sunday that scientists are studying the variants “to better understand how easily they can be transmitted and whether currently approved vaccines protect people from them”.
“There is currently no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death. New information on the virological, epidemiological and clinical characteristics of these variants is emerging rapidly,” he added.
What about the risk for vaccines?
As countries scramble to launch vaccination programs or accelerate programs already underway like the UK, experts noted that one of the greatest potential consequences of emerging variants is their “ability to evade immunity, natural or vaccine-induced”.
“Both vaccination against and natural infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) lead to a ‘polyclonal’ reaction that targets multiple parts of the spike protein. The virus would likely have to accumulate multiple mutations in the spike protein, by vaccines or by natural infection, “said the CDC on Sunday in its report on the emerging variants.
The ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity is the most worrying possible consequence of emerging strains for the CDC. “Once a large part of the population is vaccinated, there will be an immune pressure that could favor and accelerate the occurrence of such variants through selection for ‘escape mutants’.”
However, the CDC stressed that “there is no evidence and most experts believe that escape mutants are unlikely due to the nature of the virus”.
How did it come about?
How and where these variants originated is unclear, experts emphasize, noting that it is unfair to “blame” countries for mutations, as they could have originated anywhere but were discovered by certain countries “looking for them” that is, those that have advanced virus surveillance and are therefore likely to find more mutations.
For example, the British variant was found by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which is doing a random genetic sequencing of positive Covid-19 samples across the UK. Since its inception in April 2020, the consortium has sequenced 170,256 virus genomes from people infected with Covid-19. It uses the data to track outbreaks and identify variant viruses, and publishes its data weekly.