South Africa COVID Variant Detected in India: How Is It Different?

What’s the reason for pausing the vaccine? Should Indians worry? Here’s what we know till now.

4 min read
Image used for representational purpose.

The Union government on Tuesday, 16 February, said that four cases of COVID-19 with the South Africa strain have been detected in the country.

This comes a week after the administration of Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine was paused in South Africa after researchers found it provided “minimal protection” against infections caused by the new variant circulating in the country. Notably, all are AstraZeneca vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India.

What is the South Africa variant? What's the reason for pausing the vaccine run? Should Indians worry? Here's what we know till now.

What is the new South African COVID variant?

The South Africa variant, called 501Y.V2, has been found to be more transmissible. This has caused a second wave of infections in the country, with some studies pointing to a higher viral load in the variant.

The variant was detected in mid-December.

Who is more vulnerable to the new variant?

Younger people with no signs of co-morbidities are being infected by the new variant, South Africa has found, the government said.

“Clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture – in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no comorbidities presenting with critical illness,” South African Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said.

What do we know about the SA variant in India?

“In India, the South African strain of COVID-19 has been detected in 4 returnees from South Africa. All travellers and their contacts tested and quarantined. ICMR-NIV is attempting to isolate and culture the South African variant of SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr Balram Bhargava, Director General, ICMR.

There is not much information available in the public domain apart from this.

What are the other COVID variants in India?

India has at least 187 patients with the UK variant of coronavirus.

“All confirmed cases are quarantined and treated. Their contacts have been isolated and tested. Neutralisation potential with UK variant of the virus is there with the vaccine that we have,” Dr Bhargava said.

There is also a case of Brazil variant.

Bhargava added, “A case of Brazil variant of SAS-CoV-2 detected in the first week of February. Virus strain successfully isolated and cultured at ICMR-NIV-Pune. Experiments to assess vaccine effectiveness are underway. South African and Brazilian variants are different from the UK variant.”

Why did South Africa pause AstraZeneca vaccine?

The University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, which conducted the study, said in a statement on Sunday that the AstraZeneca vaccine "provides minimal protection against mild-moderate COVID-19 infection" from the South African variant.

The study, with a relatively small sample size of more than 2,000 individuals, hasn't yet been peer-reviewed.

“A two-dose regimen of (the vaccine) did not show protection against mild-moderate COVID-19 due to (the South African variant),” the study indicated, adding that efficacy against severe COVID-19, hospitalisations, and deaths was not yet determined.  

The study, however, did not assess whether the vaccine helped prevent severe COVID-19 because it involved mostly young adults, not considered to be at high risk.

What is AstraZeneca’s response?

AstraZeneca said it had not been able to properly ascertain the effect of the vaccine on severe disease and hospitalisation caused by the South African variant in the study, given most of the participants were young and healthy adults.

"We do believe our vaccine could protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to that of other COVID-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to 8-12 weeks," it said.

Should India be concerned?

In India, the Serum Institute of India has partnered with Oxford for a vaccine named ‘Covishield’ – one of the two being used in the ongoing drive in the country.

The study on South Africa variant and AstraZeneca is not a cause of concern for India, stress experts.

One, the South Africa variant of COVID-19 is detected in only four people in India.

Speaking to FIT on 5 February, Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel said, “Whatever we know so far is that the vaccines are working on mutants but not as well, which essentially means that even if you get a mutant, you get infected but the severity of the disease will be reduced. This is still a good enough reason to take the vaccine anyway.”

Dr Samiran Panda, Head of the Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases Division at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told The Indian Express: “Any country’s decision regarding the administration of a vaccine programme should not be guided by the identification of a few numbers of individuals infected with a particular variant as the whole purpose is to develop immunity at the population level. There is a need to interrupt the chain of transmission of the virus irrespective of a particular variant circulating in the country or not. There will be additional benefit if the new variant can be prevented in the vaccination programme.”

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