Virologists Voice Growing Concern Over South African COVID-19 Variant

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SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has mutated into several strains. Most of them are not particularly different than the primary strains, but two, B.1.1.7, which was first observed in the U.K., and now 501.V2, which originated in South Africa, have virologists watching closely. Although neither strain appears to be more deadly or to cause more severe illness than earlier strains, both appear to be more transmissible, or “catchy.”

The South African variant has been identified in the U.K., Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Australia, Zambia, France and South Korea, so far. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said, “I would be surprised if it were not already in the United States, but you never know until you find it, and then prove it’s here. But thus far, we have not detected the South African strain.”

The U.K. strain has been identified in several states, including Colorado, Florida, California and New York.

Some experts are concerned that the current vaccines against COVID-19 may not be as effective against the South African and U.K. strains because of mutations to the spike protein on the virus. That’s uncertain, however, and Fauci noted, “It does not yet seem to have a negative impact on the vaccine. But it’s important to continue to follow that in case things change.”

It's also important to note that the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are easily modifiable to adapt to new strains if necessary, although testing prior to approval for such modifications could take time.

Fauci also said that mutations in viruses are common and most are “meaningless,” going on to say, “Similar to the U.K. mutation and the South African mutation, every once in a while you get a mutation that does have clinical significance. And that’s the reason why you need to continually monitor these changes to make sure if that occurs that you detect it and you’re aware of it.”

However, Scott Gottlieb, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Trump administration and now a board member for Pfizer, told CNBC, “The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that it may obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs. Right now that strain does appear to be prevalent in South America and Brazil, the two parts of the world, right now, that are in their summer, but also experiencing a very dense epidemic, and that’s concerning.”

Citing experiments from Bloom Lab, Gottlieb said that the South Africa 501.v2 variant seems to be able to at least partially dodge previous immunity to the disease. In other words, the antibodies people develop from previous COVID-19 infections and some of the antibody drugs, don’t seem to be as effective against this strain.

“This new variant has mutated a part of the spike protein that our antibodies bind to, to try to clear the virus itself, so this is concerning,” Gottlieb said. “Now, the vaccine can become a backstop against these variants really getting more of a foothold here in the United States, but we need to quicken the pace of vaccination.”

The U.K.’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio, “I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant. This is a very, very significant problem … it’s even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant.”

Oxford University immunologist John Bell, who helped develop the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine, suggested it was “unlikely” the mutation would make the vaccines ineffective, but they might require modifications in order to be as effective against the strain as they are against others in circulation.

Although viruses mutate, they mutate at varying rates. One important factor, and one that is clearly an issue here, is the wider the spread, the more opportunities for mutation.

Both AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson are running human clinical trials of their vaccines in South Africa, including vaccinations given since the discovery of the South African variant. They expect data by the end of January.

Glenda Grey, president of the South African Medical Research Council and lead of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial team, said, “It is fortunate that this timing will allow us to see whether there is any change with this new variant,” in the efficacy of the vaccines. “This new variant should not delay vaccine access, but it also means we need to keep our eye on breakthrough infections.”

Meanwhile, the public is urged to wear masks, wash hands regularly, practice social distancing, and get the existing vaccines as soon as possible.

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