Community member gets tested for coronavirus. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)
Community member gets tested for coronavirus. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

WATCH: South Africa tests whether vaccines will work on new Covid-19 variant

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Jan 6, 2021

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South African scientists are urgently testing if Covid-19 vaccines will protect against newly identified coronavirus variants, which contain an unusual number of mutations compared to other variants of the coronavirus, Euro News has reported.

The South African mutation is more infectious than the original Covid-19 and concerns are growing that it might not be blocked by existing jabs.

Scientists have shown similar concern on the effectiveness of the vaccine with the variant found in the UK.

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

According to The Scientist, both these mutations found in these variants are concentrated mainly in the segment of the virus’ genome that codes for the spike protein, which the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines each build immunity to.

British health secretary Matt Hancock says he is more concerned about the South African variant, known as 501.V2, as it relates to vaccine efficacy than the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7.

“One of the reasons they know they’ve got a problem is because, like us, they have an excellent genomic scientific capability to be able to study the details of the virus,” Hancock tells BBC radio, referring to a conversation with a South African health official. “And it is even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

South Africa is currently experiencing a resurgence of the virus with new cases and deaths rising rapidly, surpassing what the country experienced in its first wave in late July 2020.

John Bell, a University of Oxford immunologist who is on the UK’s vaccine task force, speaking to Times Radio, said that he thinks vaccines would work on the UK variant but there is a “big question mark” about 501.V2, as there is still sparse evidence about it.

While tests are still ongoing in South Africa, speaking on Euro News, virologist Professor Lawrence Young, from Warwick Medical School, said the results would not be known immediately.

“It takes a bit of time. You need to understand the genetics of the virus,” the Professor of molecular oncology said. “What we know is it has a number of changes in the key spike protein that are cause for concern as to whether or not the virus will be able to respond to the current vaccines.”

Professor Young said the situation is a cause for concern.

“I’m very concerned because we know that the UK variant is difficult enough and is responsible for fuelling the current crisis we have in the United Kingdom”, he said.

“The South African variant we know is present in the United Kingdom and if our understanding of the UK variant is anything to go by, I think if once you start to detect these variants by sequencing, they’re probably everywhere anyway.

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