After UK, New COVID-19 Variant Found in South Africa: What We Know

What’s the new variant? Is it dangerous? Which countries have banned travel to South Africa? Here’s what we know.

Updated
World
3 min read

Amid concern and renewed restrictions across the world over the new coronavirus mutant found in the United Kingdom, another COVID-19 variant has now been found – with links to South Africa.

Several countries have shut their borders for passengers coming from South Africa, similar to the restrictions put on the UK.

What’s this new variant? Is it more dangerous? Here’s what we know so far.

What is the variant found in South Africa called?

The variant has been named as 501.V2, South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Twitter, adding that it was discovered through routine surveillance by the laboratories in the country.

“The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,” he added.

Is the new variant spreading faster?

The variant was first discovered in Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape. While it was confined to coastal regions, it is now entered inland South Africa.

“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 health minister tweeted.

Who is most vulnerable?

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 co-morbidities presenting with critical illness,” Zweli Mkhize added.

Which countries have suspended air travel with South Africa?

  • Germany
  • Turkey
  • Israel
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • Uzbekistan
  • Netherlands
  • Mauritius

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 

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.

Should India be concerned about the new variants?

Speaking to The Quint, Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist and Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, said, “Yes, it is a new variant that has emerged, which seems to be spreading quite fast in the UK and a few other European countries, Australia and South Africa. We should be concerned, but we should not worried.”

A growing number of countries, including India, have closed its doors to passengers from the UK. However, India is yet to take a decision on banning flights from South Africa.

(With inputs from FIT, ANI and AFP)

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