New UK Covid-19 variant discovered in SA: here's what you need to know

There are four new variants of the Covid-19 virus across the world, two of them now present in SA

28 January 2021 - 21:09
By orrin singh AND Orrin Singh
Prof Salim Abdool Karim says people should not refer to coronavirus variants from a geographical perspective and rather focus on the potential dangers they pose.
Image: 123RF/perig76 Prof Salim Abdool Karim says people should not refer to coronavirus variants from a geographical perspective and rather focus on the potential dangers they pose.

A Covid-19 variant initially discovered in the UK in December has officially found its way to SA, scientists revealed on Thursday.

The UK variant — named 501Y.V1 — was the first mutated Covid-19 variant discovered in the world, and is believed to increase the transmissibility of the virus by at least 50%.

Soon after, SA reported that it had too discovered a new variant — 501Y.V2 — which has widely been attributed, because of its transmissibility, as being behind the high number of reported cases during the second wave of infections.

Panic does not help, what we need to do is to take this virus very seriously because if we keep this virus circulating at such high levels for so long the virus will add mutations which will make it more transmissible as shown in this new variant that emerged in the UK.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira

Speaking to TimesLIVE, Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at UKZN's Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, said the discovery of the UK variant in SA was made by the Stellenbosch University and the National Health Laboratory Service.

He said the Western Cape was the first province to identity this new variant in the country.

“The UK variant has been identified in 60 countries around the world, while the SA variant is in at least 22 countries. The difference is largely due to the UK, specifically London, being much more connected to the international network than SA,” De Oliveira said.

He said that while there was no need to panic about this discovery, as both the UK and SA variants had similar levels of transmissibility, citizens still needed to do their part in ensuring the virus does not spread.

De Oliveira said there was at least four of these variant identified across the globe, namely:

  • UK — B.1.1.7 (501Y.V1)
  • SA — B. 1.351 (501Y.V2)
  • Brazil — P1 (501Y.V3)
  • US — CAL26 (yet to be classified)

He said the only reason these the UK and SA variants were identified first was because countries had invested in a network for genomic surveillance to trace the gromatics every week.

So why has no new variant been discovered in Asia? 

De Oliveira believes that majority of the Asian countries took the drastic and necessary steps during the initial outbreak.

“In countries like Australia, China, Vietnam and New Zealand, they are very good in keeping the infections very low by taking every single infection in the country seriously. For example, in China, if they have a few infections in a city they will close the entire city down and test millions of people and do full contact tracing. In Australia it is the same,” he said.

Speaking to TimesLIVE on Wednesday, ahead of the official confirmation of the UK variant on Thursday, co-chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) Prof Salim Abdool Karim said people should steer away from referring to these variants from a geographical perspective and rather focus on the fact of the potential dangers they pose.

“As in the case of all variants, they are first discovered somewhere, in the case of the 501Y.V2 variant, it was first found in an individual who was in the Eastern Cape.” 

He said no-one knew if this person had caused the mutation in the Eastern Cape.

“It's hard to tell. This could have been somebody who travelled from outside the country or interacted with someone from another province who came into contact with someone from outside their country. It's unfortunate that it's sometimes referred to the South African variant because it is now in so many countries and will spread to many more. It is not appropriate to refer to it geographically, it's best to call it by what it is — it's name, 501Y.V2,” he said.

Meanwhile, a National Institute for Communicable Diseases report released on Thursday found that the 501Y.V2 variant had become pre-eminent across Gauteng.

The report stated that the virus lineage had been shown to predominate in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“Here, we describe a preliminary analysis of 479 sequences from Gauteng, the country’s economic hub, indicating that the 501Y.V2 lineage first appeared in November and by December accounted for 84% (62/74) of sequences [in Gauteng].

“The Eastern Cape, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng data suggests that 501Y.V2 lineage may be predominant throughout SA,” the report said.