'It would appear new Covid-19 variant has higher transmissibility': experts

27 December 2020 - 00:03
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said the new mutation is unlikely to affect vaccine efficacy — despite the eight mutations in the virus’s spike protein.
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said the new mutation is unlikely to affect vaccine efficacy — despite the eight mutations in the virus’s spike protein.
Image: 123RF/perig76

SA's new coronavirus variant has rapidly displaced others but little is known about it yet - including whether it makes people sicker - though preliminary data suggests it is highly transmissible.

Known as 501Y.V2, it has quickly become the main variant circulating in Western Cape and Eastern Cape hotspots. Carolyn Williamson, head of medical virology at the University of Cape Town, said samples from the Garden Route in October contained no virus mutations. By early November, about 40% showed the V2 mutation and by late November it was up to 80%.

"There are 20 different variants but this one has rapidly dominated," Williamson said.

Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute in KwaZulu-Natal and head of a research consortium of 33 scientists investigating the new variant, said it was the dominant lineage of the second wave.

The variant emerged in the Eastern Cape and spread rapidly to the Western Cape. It has not yet been identified conclusively in Gauteng or the Free State, according to the scientists who are analysing it. 

Hanekom said: "It is likely to [reach] everywhere if it follows the patterns. It is likely to transmit more easily and we have heard reports that younger people are more infected and [sicker] with it than any other variants. We need to confirm this."

The consortium, which met for the first time on Wednesday, will investigate key questions including whether existing diagnostics and vaccines would work as well for this variant.

Barry Schoub, who heads the Minister's Vaccine Advisory Committee, said the new variant has a more effective binding mechanism and causes a higher viral load, which seems likely to accelerate the rate of infections in the second wave.

"There is a much higher amount of virus from the swabs taken," he said.

"It would appear the new variant has higher transmissibility and may be replacing the previous virus. Close on 90% of the [virus sequenced] has been the new variant."

Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said the new mutation is unlikely to affect vaccine efficacy - despite the eight mutations in the virus's spike protein.

"The vaccines have been geared to target the spike protein, which is a big area. As the virus evolves, we will have to adapt the vaccine," she said.

"Pfizer says they can make a new vaccine [for a targeted variation] in six weeks." Covid vaccine development could evolve like the flu vaccine, which is modified annually.

Hanekom said he is "very concerned at how overwhelmed the health systems are already and we have not yet reached the peak".

He urged South Africans to take the necessary precautions.


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