A patient with Covid-19 breathes oxygen on December 29, 2020 on the Covid-19 ward in Khayelitsha Hospital, about 35 km from central Cape Town.
RODGER BOSCH | AFP | Getty Images
A variant of the coronavirus identified in South Africa is more problematic than the mutation found in the UK, the UK Health Secretary said on Monday, as both strains are spreading rapidly.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC that 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 steps we have been taking to restrict all flights from South Africa,” he told the BBC’s Today program.
“This is a very, very significant problem … and it’s even more of a problem than the new variant in the UK.”
Both countries are grappling with spikes in Covid-19 infections, largely due to mutations in the virus that make it more transmissible.
The new variant of Great Britain was first identified in December in Kent in southeast England. The British authorities have made the World Health Organization aware of its creation.
Experts note that while the new variant is spreading more easily, it doesn’t appear to make it any more deadly. Still, UK hospitals are under pressure from a dramatic increase in infections and admissions.
Effectiveness of the vaccine
Questions have been raised about how the coronavirus vaccines will work against the new variants.
Several experts have expected vaccines – such as those from Pfizer and BioNTech, and Oxford University / AstraZeneca – to protect against the new strains.
At the beginning of December, the WHO chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, allaying fears about the variants, told the BBC it was “very unlikely” that the latest mutations would cause the current vaccines not to work. The WHO has stated that further research is needed “to understand the effects of specific mutations on the viral properties and effectiveness of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines”.
Dr. Oxford University’s John Bell said Sunday that the variant identified in South Africa is worrying in that regard.
“They both have several different mutations, so it is not a single mutation,” he told Times Radio. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really quite substantial changes in the structure of the (virus spike) protein.”
He said there were questions about whether the vaccines from Pfizer / BioNTech and Oxford University / AstraZeneca would be “disabled” in the presence of such mutations.
The Oxford University vaccination team looked at the effect of the variants on the vaccine, he said, adding that his gut feeling was that it was still effective against the strain identified in the UK, but he was more uncertain about the identified in South Africa.
However, he told the radio station that if the vaccine didn’t work on this variant, it was likely that the vaccines could be adjusted, and that it would not take as long as a year.
Coronavirus vaccines are the only bright spot in a pandemic that continues to rage in the west. On Monday, the UK began rolling out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after the use of the Pfizer / BioNTech shot began in December.
In the meantime, restrictions on public life remain and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that further restrictions could be put in place in England. Many parts of the country are already effectively locked, all but important businesses are closed, and people are supposed to stay home as often as possible. Still, more restrictions could be introduced in parts of the country with loose measures.
Britain has now registered over 2.6 million cases of the virus and over 75,000 deaths to date, according to a record by Johns Hopkins University. The new variant has seen an increase in infections in London and the south-east and is emerging in other parts of the country.
Over 1.1 million cases and nearly 30,000 deaths have been recorded in South Africa. The new variety has played a dominant role in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
The variant originally identified in the UK was also discovered in some European countries and the USA, prompting many nations to ban flights from the UK. Britain, for its part, has banned visitors from South Africa.