Scientists in South Africa and “around the world” have taken a “strong stand” against calling the latest variant of SARS-CoV-2 spreading like wildfire across the country, “the South African variant”. TimesLIVE quotes the researcher, who have delved into the variant for the benefit of all, as saying that it could have begun in any country, and could appear in any country, and labelling it “the South African variant” just because of the country’s in-depth analysis of the variant, is unjust and damaging.
According to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu (KZN) Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP): “Health ministries across the world have said that South Africa has the worst variant in the world, and they associate our country with the name of the variant. It could easily have emerged elsewhere but it’s only thanks to our excellent genomic surveillance here in South Africa that we know more and more about it.”
The new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa in mid-December is about 50% more transmissible than older lineages but there is no evidence that it leads to more severe disease, one of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s top scientific advisers is quoted in Business Day as saying.
However, scientists remain concerned about the capacity of the new variant, dubbed 501Y.V2, to render COVID-19 vaccines less effective because new research has found antibodies from a high proportion people who have previously been infected during South Africa’s first coronavirus wave were unable to neutralise it, said Salim Abdool Karim, who co-chairs the ministerial advisory committee on COVID-19.
The extremely rapid spread of these more contagious variants not only threatens to overwhelm already strained health systems, but has scientists deeply concerned that the vaccines already being administered will be rendered less effective. The variants could also throw a spanner in the works for other shots that are still in clinical trials.
According to Business Day, researchers from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases found the 501Y.V2 variant was able to evade the antibodies generated by people in South Africa’s first coronavirus wave in almost half the 44 samples they studied. They also found 90% of these antibody samples were less effective at neutralising 501Y.V2 than older lineages.
“There are limitations to this data, and we need to wait for clinical trial data (and other studies) to determine whether or not this will impact on vaccines,” said NICD senior scientists Penny Moore.
Koleka Mlisana, head of research and quality assurance at the National Health Laboratory Service, said there was no evidence of an increased risk of reinfection with the new variant.
de Oliveira said it was vital to slow the spread of the coronavirus. “If we cannot stop transmission, we are likely to see a third or fourth wave, and a virus better able to evade the immune response,” he said.
Full TimesLIVE report
Full Business Day report