The new Covid strain plaguing SA: seven pressing questions answered

Is the new Covid-19 variant, 501Y.V2, more deadly? Will existing vaccines work against it? We asked an expert from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases

20 January 2021 - 06:00
Existing preventative measures guard against the new Covid strain so people need to continue wearing masks, sanitising and avoiding close contact with others, urges an expert.
Existing preventative measures guard against the new Covid strain so people need to continue wearing masks, sanitising and avoiding close contact with others, urges an expert.
Image: 123RF/Francisco Alberto Rodrguez Henn

Since learning of the new Covid-19 variant, 501Y.V2, that reared its head in SA towards the end of last year, the country has been moved back to an adjusted level 3 lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

While much about this new variant is still uncertain and will require further research, we asked Prof Lynn Morris, principal medical scientist and head of the HIV Virology section at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), to answer some pressing questions about it:

Is there any evidence to suggest that the new Covid strain is more deadly than the original? Or that someone is more likely to suffer from what has been termed “long Covid” with the new strain?

At this stage there is no indication that the new variant behaves any differently once a person is infected, but many people are actively studying this.

Why are younger people seemingly more susceptible to this new strain of Covid?

There is no indication that young people are more susceptible to the new variant. However, the new variant is more efficient at spreading between people (explaining the higher caseloads we are seeing in the second wave) and so will infect people who are not adhering to prevention measures.

If someone has already had Covid, are they less likely to be infected with the new strain?

Re-infection occurs but is still relatively rare. We don’t know yet if this holds true for the new variant as it has not been circulating long enough. However, the finding that the new variant has escaped antibody responses suggests that immunity from the first infection may no longer be as effective.

Recent studies have shown that the new variant is less sensitive to neutralising antibodies as measured in a laboratory. In practice this could mean that neutralising antibodies raised against the first infection may no longer provide the same level of protection. This is because the new variant has become resistant to some antibodies.

Will the Covid vaccines that have been prepared and are being rolled out be effective against the new strain?

We do not know the answer to this yet. Some of the mutations in the new variant are on parts of the virus that we know are important for antibody binding. The mutations on the spike protein mean that antibodies can no longer bind and neutralise the virus.

If people aren’t developing immunity against Covid once they’ve had the virus, why will the vaccine be effective?

How Covid vaccines protect people is still unknown. Antibodies are a key component but other immune responses including non-neutralising antibodies and T cells likely also play an important role.

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Will the antibody test that’s available to the public pick up whether someone has been infected with the new strain of Covid-19? 

Antibody tests are used to determine past infections, not current infections. Diagnosis of infection is done using PCR or antigen testing. Both of these types of tests work well on the new variant.

Is there anything else you feel people should know about the new strain?

The new variant is just as susceptible to the known effective prevention measures so people need to continue wearing masks, sanitising and avoiding close contact with others.