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How concerning is the South African coronavirus variant?

Alexandra Thompson
·6-min read
Corona virus
A variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa is causing concern. (Stock, Getty Images)

A new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa has hit the headlines.

With effective vaccines long being hailed as a route back to life as we knew it, one expert has warned there is a “big question mark” regarding whether the variant will respond to the two jabs approved in the UK.

He added, however, it is “unlikely” the variant will “turn off the effect of vaccines entirely”, with others being similarly optimistic.

Research points to the variant spreading more easily, however, whether it causes more severe disease is unclear.

Nevertheless, health secretary Matt Hancock has said he is “very worried”, despite only two confirmed cases being reported in the UK.

Watch: Matt Hancock ‘very worried’ about new South African coronavirus variant

Read more: Should the second coronavirus vaccine dose be delayed?

Pending the results of ongoing investigations, one expert stressed “a drumbeat of nightmare scenarios about this new variant does nothing but create anxiety”, which he called “far from enjoyable”.

What could the South African variant mean for vaccines?

The South African variant differs from the so-called UK variant, which hit the headlines in December.

Research suggests the UK variant is up to 70% more transmissible than the established versions of the coronavirus that previously circulated, with the South African variant said to spread at least as easily.

The two variants share a mutation called N501Y. This affects the virus’ so-called spike protein, which it uses to enter cells and is a target for many vaccines.

Unlike the UK variant, the South African variant carries a mutation called E484K, also on the spike protein.

“The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition,” said Professor Francois Balloux from University College London.

“As such, it helps the virus bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.”

Read more: Stroke-like brain damage found in coronavirus victims

Professor Balloux stressed, however, “it is not anticipated this mutation is sufficient for the South African variant to bypass the protection provided by current vaccines”.

“It’s possible new variants will affect the efficacy of the COVID [the disease caused by the coronavirus] vaccines, but we shouldn’t make that assumption yet about the South African one,” he added.

Speaking of the N501Y and E484K mutations, Professor Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick added: “These changes are consistent with both these variants being more infectious, but we don’t know whether they will affect the disease severity.

“While changes in the UK variant are unlikely to impact the effectiveness of current vaccines, the accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection.”

Watch: First Oxford vaccine dose administered in UK

Read more: How will scientists uncover if vaccines work against UK coronavirus variant?

The UK has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and University of Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines, with many more under development worldwide.

When it comes to the UK variant, Public Health England scientists at the Porton Down laboratory in Wiltshire are investigating whether the jabs are still effective, with experts largely being optimistic.

Professor Sir John Bell from the University of Oxford warned there is a “big question mark” over whether the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab works against the South African variant, with a team investigating this “right now”.

Believing it is “unlikely” the variant will “turn off the effect of vaccines entirely”, Sir Bell added the jab could be tweaked in as little as four weeks if necessary.

Coronavirus COVID-19 single dose small vials and multi dose in scientist hands concept. Research for new novel corona virus immunization drug.
Experts are largely optimistic vaccines will work against the South African variant, however, studies to confirm this are ongoing. (Stock, Getty Images)

Were new variants expected?

The fact the coronavirus mutated is no surprise.

The coronavirus is an RNA virus, which mutate relatively regularly. In simple terms, RNA is a precursor to the more well known DNA.

Most mutations are neutral, while others can be advantageous or detrimental to the virus.

Neutral and advantageous mutations can become more common as they pass to descendant viruses. Detrimental mutations tend not to “stick”; think survival of the fittest.

“Variants of [the coronavirus] have been around since the beginning of the pandemic, and are a product of the natural process by which viruses develop and adapt to their hosts as they replicate,” said Professor Young.

“Most of these mutations have no effect on the behaviour of the virus but very occasionally they can improve the ability of the virus to infect and/or become more resistant to the body’s immune response.

Read more: Flu 'low' due to 'record uptake' of vaccine amid pandemic

“Many thousands of these mutations have already been identified in isolates of the virus with around 4,000 spike mutations being found in different viruses from around the world.

“The UK and South African virus variants have changes in the spike gene consistent with the possibility they are more infectious.”

One expert pointed out, however, the South African variant may be more difficult to trace.

“The South African variant is a more difficult virus to track as it lacks some mutations in the spike found in the Kent virus which make it easily detectable by the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test used by the NHS,” said Dr Simon Clarke from the University of Reading.

The UK variant is thought to have originated in Kent.

PCR involves a very small amount of the virus’ genetic material being amplified for detection, considered the gold standard approach when diagnosing a patient.

How to protect yourself from the new variant

Whatever the variant, the basic principles of warding off infection remain the same – hand washing, wearing a face covering and maintaining social distancing.

“Along with improved surveillance (testing, tracing and isolating) and expediating the roll out of the vaccine, these measures will prevent transmission of this variant and any others that will arise,” said Professor Young.

“Quarantine measures and restricting travel from and to South Africa are [also] imperative.” Travel restrictions are already in place.

Amid these unsettling times, one expert stressed the importance of staying calm.

“For the general public, I would say think about our human nature,” said Professor James Naismith from the University of Oxford.

“Many of us like a good scare, and horror stories are part and parcel of human culture, which means such things get a lot of coverage.

“However, a drumbeat of nightmare scenarios about this new variant does nothing but create anxiety, because too little is known and there is nothing we can do about it at the moment.

“Prolonged anxiety is far from enjoyable and leads to mental illness.”

To proactively protect yourself, Professor Naismith similarly recommends we “redouble our efforts to wash our hands, wear a mask and socially distance”.

“We can all help each other through kindness and understanding, many are grieving, others are financially very stretched and others are very lonely,” he added.

“We can help by not amplifying or spreading doomsday scenarios or spreading magical thinking or nonsense information.”

Addressing politicians, Professor Naismith added: “Those who advocate reducing social restrictions really should make clear the costs in lives of their policy.

“In our democracy we elect politicians, not scientists, to take decisions.

“We expect politicians to make decisions based on facts, not fantasy.”

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