4 Detected with South Africa Variant in India; Here’s What We Know

3 min read

On Tuesday, 16 February, the Union government said that 4 people had been detected with the South Africa COVID variant in January. The variant was detected in one returnee from Angola, one from Tanzania and two from South Africa.

The centre added that one individual tested positive for the Brazil variant in the first week of February.

“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”
Dr. Balram Bhargava, DG ICMR

For the UK variant, Dr Bhargava said, “Today we have 187 UK variant patients. 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."

For the Brazil variant, he added, “A case of Brazil variant of SAS-CoV-2 detected in the first week of Feb. 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.”


First the Basics: What is the South Africa Variant?

The new variant, called the 501.V2, emerged after the first wave of infections in Nelson Mandela Bay on the coast of the Eastern Cape Province in November-December 2020. Within weeks, it became the dominant coronavirus in both Eastern and Western Capes, according to a report by The Guardian. It is a mutation of the original COVID-19 virus.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mikhize announced on 18 December that the evidence collated strongly suggested that the current wave experienced in the country is being driven by the new variant.

“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 co-morbidities presenting with critical illness,” he tweeted.

Dr Richard Lessells, a leading infectious disease expert in South Africa and one of the specialists studying the new variant, said, “There are a few more concerns with our variant [than that in the UK] for the vaccine … But we are now doing the careful, methodical work in the lab to answer all the questions we have, and that takes time”, reported The Guardian.

“Putting our data together with that in the UK, this [South African] variant is a bit more effective at spreading from person to person and that is not good. It means we have to get a bit better at stopping it,” Dr Richard Lessells said.

Like the UK variant, this one is also more transmissible than the original virus. In the South African variant, reports suggest the young population is being infected more.

Are India’s Covaxin and Covishield Effective Against the South African Variant?

India has two vaccines against COVID-19: Covishield by Serum Institute of India and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech.

Bharat Biotech released a pre-print that suggested that Covaxin could elicit an immune response against the UK variant, it did not release any details regarding effectiveness against the South African variant.

Covishield Controversy

South Africa asked the Serum Institute of India (SII) to take back one million doses of Covishield, the Indian name for UK's Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on 16 February, as per an Economic Times report. SII had sent the one million doses to South Africa in early February, and 500,000 were due to arrive in the next few weeks.

South Africa's health minister said the government may sell doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine after the findings of a small clinical trial where Covishield was only slightly effective against mild to moderate illness of the South African COVID-19 variant.

SII has not issued any clarification or comment on the matter.

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