FAQ: What Do We Know About the New COVID Variant in South Africa?

4 min read

As we come to terms with news of the COVID-19 variant discovered in the United Kingdom, another potentially more infectious variant identified in South Africa has now spread waves of concern across the world.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday that two cases of the new variant have been identified in the country - both contacts of people who travelled to South Africa.

Here’s what we know.


What's Happening?

South Africa saw its first COVID peak in July and August, after which cases started to fall considerably. However, things changed drastically as the number of people infected began to rise steeply at the beginning of December.

“This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant discovered in the UK,” Hancock has said, reported The Guardian.

With reports of the new variant, over eight countries have so far closed doors to passengers coming from South Africa. Germany, Turkey, Israel, Switzerland, the UK, Uzbekistan and the Netherlands aren’t permitting any flights from South Africa to enter their country.

When Was the Variant First Discovered? Does it Impact the Young More?

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. Within weeks, it became the dominant coronavirus in both Eastern and Western Capes, according to a report by The Guardian.

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.

Prof Salim Abdool Karim, the chairman of the government’s ministerial advisory committee (MAC), said,

“The second wave is showing early signs that it is spreading faster than the first wave. It is not clear if this second wave has more or less deaths. We have not seen any red flags looking at our current death information. The higher viral load in swabs may translate to higher efficiency of transmission.”
Prof Salim Abdool Karim

How Is It Different From the UK Variant?

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

“This lineage spread rapidly, becoming within weeks the dominant lineage in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Whilst the full significance of the mutations is yet to be determined, the genomic data, showing the rapid displacement of other lineages, suggest that this lineage may be associated with increased transmissibility,” authors wrote in a research paper published this week.

According to Reuters, Susan Hopkins from Public Health England also said that the new variant appears to be ‘very different’ and that it has got ‘different mutations’.

“Both of them look like they’re more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We’re still learning about the South African variant.”
Susan Hopkins

While preliminary understanding suggests the South African variant could be more transmissible, scientists are awaiting further data and assessment before making these claims with certainty.


What’s Common Between the Two Variants?

One significant mutation - N501Y - is common to both the variants and may be contributing to their ability to spread fast. The change is in the part of the virus that it uses to infect the cells in the human body.

Both the UK and the South Africa variant involve changes in the spike protein, which plays a key role in unlocking the doorway to the body's cells.

Another similarity is that neither of the two variants is known to be associated with an increase in disease severity or death so far.

Even though many cases in South Africa are being observed among young people aged 15-25, we are yet to know if this is a function of the new variant, or, instead, of the behaviour and social activities of this section of the population.

Does the South African Variant Cause More Severe Disease?

So far, there is no evidence to say so.

While the mutations may be allowing it to bind to cells more efficiently and to ease transmission, there is little understanding of its impact on the severity of the disease.

A report by The Guardian quotes scientists who have told the local media,

“At this stage, there is no clear evidence of the new variant being associated with more severe disease or worse outcomes but clinicians are undertaking more studies to establish if this new variant does change the course of the disease.”

“Patients will in all likelihood present with the same spectrum of symptoms as before.”

Importantly, it is unlikely that these variants would have any impact on the COVID-19 vaccines in development or in use right now because vaccines produce a broad antibody response to the virus and are expected to work on most mutations, as FIT had earlier explained.

(With inputs from The Guardian and Reuters)

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