The variant has been identified by South African genomics scientists. Picture: Pexels/ Pixabay
The variant has been identified by South African genomics scientists. Picture: Pexels/ Pixabay

FAQ: Is the 501.V2 variant more contagious?

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Jan 5, 2021

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Since the new variant, named 501.V2, of the coronavirus was detected in South Africa, many people have been feeling anxious about it

While there is still ongoing research about this virus, epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist Professor Salim Abdool Karim said the second wave was showing early signs that it was spreading faster than the first wave.

Just this week UK scientists raised concerns that existing Covid-19 vaccines may not be effective against the new strain of the coronavirus.

Reuters quoted ITV as saying Hancock was "incredibly worried" that the South African strain of the virus was resistant to vaccines being rolled out in the UK.

Despite the questions that remain, here’s what we do know about it thus far:

501.V2 spread

“It is still very early, but at this stage the preliminary data suggest that the virus now dominating in the second wave is spreading faster than the first wave. It is not clear if the second wave has more or less deaths, in other words, the severity is still very unclear. We would expect it to be a less severe virus, but we do not have clear evidence at this point. We have not seen any red flags, looking at our current death information.

“We had all of these different strains routinely spreading in South Africa during our first wave and subsequently. What became quite different, that we did not expect, is the rapid way in which this variant has become dominant in South Africa,” said Abdool Karim.

The variant was identified by South African genomics scientists from across the country, led by the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP). They have been analysing coronavirus genetic samples from different parts of South Africa since the start of the pandemic, and in the past weeks these samples have been dominated by a new variant.

What is different about 501.V2?

The new lineage, 501.V2, has between 10 and 20 new mutations not seen in the coronavirus tested in South Africa before the end of September.

This particular virus has three mutations on the receptor-binding domain, which is the part of the virus that attaches to the human cell. One interpretation of these changes is that they increase the affinity for the ACE2 receptor. The other two mutations possibly add some potential antibody escape, but the full implications of the combination of the three mutations still need to be understood in more detail.”

Symptoms

Speaking to Business Insider, Dr Richard Lessells, s a senior researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says that it is highly unlikely that patients will have different symptoms.

But researchers are now urgently trying to confirm whether there are any changes in how fast and aggressively Covid-19 progresses in patients with the new variant.

Scientists are saying at this point it is unknown whether this variant presents itself differently, although there is no reason to think the types of symptoms you get will be different. Patients will in all likelihood present with the same spectrum of symptoms as before. Whether the overall severity will be different remains to be seen.

WATCH: How does the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine work?

Viral load

South African scientists speculate that the higher viral loads they're seeing on swab samples of the new lineage compared to previous versions of Covid-19 could indicate it is more efficient at transmission.

Abdool Karim said:“The higher viral load in these swabs may translate to a higher efficiency of transmission. If there’s higher transmissibility, it may translate to a higher R0 (the number of additional people one patient may infect). While the other viruses are still transmitting, this virus is spreading so much faster that when we take swabs it is the dominant variant that we see. This may translate into a second wave that may have many more cases than the first wave.”

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said that while this mutation was a cause for concern, there was no reason to panic.

“We appeal to all the media and medical and scientific community to focus on the facts and avoid entering into speculation or issue unproven statements and generate panic and disinformation. This research underlines the need for all of us to loyally adhere to the practice of non-pharmaceutical interventions, which work as effectively in any pandemic of this nature including Covid-19, as we have known it, and is just as effective to a mutant variant of the same virus,” Mkhize said.

“Nothing will beat the rigid implementation of wearing masks, use of hand sanitiser and washing with soap and distancing. Many countries experienced a second wave that was more severe than first – even where no mutations were reported.”

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