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article imageSouth African variant of COVID-19 has scientists worried

By Karen Graham     Jan 4, 2021 in Science
A new variant of the coronavirus that has been identified in South Africa is more of a risk than the mutation found in the U.K., according to Britain’s health minister.
“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant,” U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC radio Monday, citing a conversation over the Christmas holiday with his counterpart in South Africa, according to Bloomberg.
“One of the reasons they know they’ve got a problem is because, like us, they have an excellent genomic scientific capability to be able to study the details of the virus. And it is even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant.”
Like the UK variant, first identified in Great Britain, the South African variant is also more infectious than previous strains. Health officials note that while the new strain spreads more easily, it does not make it any deadlier. However, one of the big concerns is if the coronavirus vaccines will work against the new variants, writes CNBC News.
The UK variant was first identified in Kent, southeast England, in December. At that time, the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified. Now, with the identification of another coronavirus variant - questions are being raised over how the coronavirus vaccines will work against the new strains.
A number of experts have said they expect vaccines — such as those from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca — to protect against the new strains. WHO chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan tried to allay fears over the variants in early December, telling the BBC it was “very unlikely” that the latest mutations would cause the current vaccines not to work.
But WHO has also said further investigations are required “to understand the impact of specific mutations on viral properties and the effectiveness of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.”
Saying the South African variant is more problematic than the U.K. variant is “politics rather than science” at this point, said Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He says more research needs to be done to understand the strain, and at this time, there's little evidence to support the South African strain being more worrisome than the UK strain.
“Vaccine efficacy is clearly one of the big questions that arise from discovering these new variables, and we understand everybody wants answers immediately,” Lessells said. “But it takes a little bit of time to get the answers.”
The Covid-19 virus can have long-lasting effects on those who contract it and research into the prob...
The Covid-19 virus can have long-lasting effects on those who contract it and research into the problem is just beginning
Handout, National Institutes of Health/AFP
The South African variant
Dr. Julian Tang, Honorary Associate Professor/Clinical Virologist, University of Leicester, said: additional Tier 4 lockdowns in the UK were in response to the surge of cases of the new UK B.1.1.7 (variant) virus that is spreading across South/Southeast England.
“A new virus variant ‘501.V2’ from South Africa has been identified in some COVID-19 cases in the UK recently," Dr. Tang said. “The South African variant ‘501.V2’ is characterized by N501Y, E484K, and K417N mutations in the S protein – so it shares the N501Y mutation with the UK variant, but the other two mutations are not found in the UK variant. Similarly, the South African variant does not contain the 69-70del mutation that is found in the UK variant."
The new South African variant is described in this presentation, which cites a paper in Cell (Tyler N et al. 2020).
Currently, there are 60 vaccine candidates in trials, including those already being rolled out from AstraZeneca and Oxford, Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, Russia’s Sputnik V, and China’s Sinopharm, according to Reuters.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin and John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, have said they are testing the vaccines against the new variants and say they could make any required tweaks in around six weeks.
More about coronavirus, varients, South Africa, additional mutations, UK Scientists
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