Concern as SA/UK variants of COVID-19 spread rapidly worldwide

Organisation: Position: Deadline Date: Location:

The variants of COVID-19 found in the UK and South Africa have spread rapidly around the world with concern being voiced over possible increased vaccine resistance, writes MedicalBrief.

Reuters list the countries that have reported variants among their populations. Some 33 countries have found the variants, mostly in small numbers except for Denmark with 800 infections and Ireland, where the number is not determined but is said to exceed the “most pessimistic models” available to the government.

Scientists in South Africa say, meanwhile, there is a “reasonable concern” that the new variant of COVID-19 sweeping across the country might prove to be more resistant to current vaccines being rolled out in the UK and elsewhere, and warn that it makes the need for a global roll-out of vaccines “even more critical”.

BBC News reports that this is according to Prof Shabir Madhi, who has led trials for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa, who said: “It’s a theoretical concern. A reasonable concern… that the South African variant might be more resistant.”

The report says Madhi was responding to comments by the UK government and scientists. He said a definitive answer would probably come in a matter of weeks, with extensive testing already under way in South Africa. The concern arises from the fact that the virus here has mutated far more than the variant in the UK, and one of those mutations might mean it can evade attack by antibodies that would normally fight coronavirus.

Madhi said it was “unlikely” that the mutation in South Africa would make the current vaccines useless, but might “weaken the impact”.

A vaccine expert at Wits University, Prof Helen Rees, said: “Fortunately, should further modifications of the vaccine be required to address the new variants, some of the vaccine technologies under development could allow this to be done relatively rapidly.”

BBC News reports South Africa recently pushed back against suggestions from the British government that its variant was more transmissible than the one in the UK. Scientists insist there is no evidence of that, nor that the mutations here have made the virus deadlier.

Rees said concern about the mutations in South Africa should add to global pressure for a swift roll-out of vaccines across the world, and not just to wealthier nations.

Prof Barry Schoub, who chairs the government’s advisory committee on vaccines, said the “preliminary evidence” from tests did not suggest that mutations would allow the virus to “escape” the impact of the current vaccines. “The vaccines seem to be very effective,” he said, citing laboratory tests that appeared to show the current vaccines still “neutralise this new variant”.

Madhi said the crucial laboratory experiments were yet to start and the efficacy of the vaccines would only be known “over the next few weeks”.

The Guardian reports experts as saying that concern over the variants even though the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said he is very concerned about the latest variant of SARS-Cov-2, which has emerged in South Africa and is said to be highly transmissible, as is the variant first seen in Kent.

“Viruses mutate and new strains will emerge,” said Prof James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in The Guardian. “The so-called South African strain has a number of changes, and scientists are working flat out to understand their significance. Some of the changes are quite significant and thus scientists are paying a lot of attention. We do not yet know enough to say more than this.”

Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University and an honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, has been working on how mutations to the virus are increasing infectivity. There was a need to strike a balance, he said, “between warning people about something that might be important and creating panic, which I think is what is happening”.

 

Hancock told the BBC the variant found in South Africa was especially concerning. “I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” he told the BBC’s “Today” programme, reports CNBC. “This is a very, very significant problem … and it’s even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

Earlier in December, World Health Organisation (WHO) chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan tried to allay fears over the variants, telling the BBC it was “very unlikely” that the latest mutations would cause the current vaccines not to work. The WHO has said further investigations are required “to understand the impact of specific mutations on viral properties and the effectiveness of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.”

Dr John Bell of Oxford University said the variant identified in South Africa was worrisome in this regard, however. “They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” he told Times Radio. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the (virus’ spike) protein.”

He said there were questions as to whether the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccines would be “disabled” in the presence of such mutations.

CNBC reports that the team behind the Oxford University inoculation was investigating the effect of the variants on its vaccine, he said, adding that his gut feeling was that it would still be effective against the strain identified in the UK, but he was more uncertain about the one identified in South Africa. However, he told the radio station that if the vaccine did not work on this variant, then it was likely the vaccines could be adapted and that would not take as long as a year.

 

Reuters list on Yahoo News site

 

Full BBC News report

 

Full report in The Guardian

 

Full CNBC report

Receive Medical Brief's free weekly e-newsletter



Related Posts

Thank you for subscribing to MedicalBrief


MedicalBrief is Africa’s premier medical news and research weekly newsletter. MedicalBrief is published every Thursday and delivered free of charge by email to over 33 000 health professionals.

Please consider completing the form below. The information you supply is optional and will only be used to compile a demographic profile of our subscribers. Your personal details will never be shared with a third party.


Thank you for taking the time to complete the form.