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South Africa coronavirus variant: What is the risk?

By Michelle Roberts

Health editor, BBC News online


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A new variant of coronavirus circulating in South Africa is now being seen in other countries, including the UK.

Experts are urgently studying it to understand what risk it poses.

What is the new variant?

All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate.

These tiny genetic changes happen as the virus makes new copies of itself to spread and thrive.

Most are inconsequential, and a few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival, but some can make it more infectious or threatening to the host – humans.

There are now many thousands of different versions, or variants, of the pandemic virus circulating. But experts’ concerns focus on a small number of these.

One is the South African variant called 501.V2.

What do experts say?

The South African variant carries a mutation called E484K, among others.

It’s different to another recently discovered variant that scientists have been studying in the UK.

Both the new South African and UK ‘Kent’ variants appear to be more contagious, which is a problem because tougher restrictions on society may be needed to control the spread.

While changes in the new UK variant are unlikely to harm the effectiveness of current vaccines, there is a chance those in the South African variant may do so to some extent, say scientists.

It is too soon to say for sure, or by how much, until more tests are completed, although it is extremely unlikely the mutations would render vaccines useless.

Scientists have tested the Pfizer Covid vaccine against one of the mutations found in the South African variant, called N501Y, using blood samples from 20 people.

In that preliminary study, vaccination appeared to work against the mutated virus.

More studies are needed though, because N501Y is not the only change the South African variant has undergone.

Dr Simon Clarke, who is an expert in cell microbiology at the University of Reading, said: “The South African variant has a number of additional mutations including changes to some of the virus’ spike protein which are concerning.”

The spike protein is what coronavirus uses to gain entry into human cells. It is also the bit that vaccines are designed around, which is why experts are worried about these particular mutations.

“They cause more extensive alteration of the spike protein than the changes in the Kent variant and may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines,” said Dr Clarke.

Prof Francois Balloux, from University College London, said: “The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps the virus SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.”

But even in the worst case scenario, vaccines can be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match in a matter or weeks or months, if necessary, say experts.

Is it more dangerous?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that any of the mutated viruses cause more serious illness.

And measures like washing your hands, keeping your distance from other people and wearing a face covering will still help stop the spread.

How far has it spread?

It is already the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa.

Other countries including Austria, Norway and Japan, have also found cases.

The UK has detected two people with the South African variant – one in London and the other in the north west of England. Both were contacts of people who travelled to South Africa.

What is the UK doing about it?

The UK has imposed a ban on direct flights from South Africa and restrictions on flights to the country. Anyone who has travelled there recently, and anyone they have been in contact with, are being told to quarantine immediately.

Public health authorities and scientists are studying the variant and will share their findings soon.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser on Covid-19 to Public Health England, said: “We are carrying out work as a priority to understand the potential risk this variant may cause. It is important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.”

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