Amid concerns, fears over new Covid-19 virus variant - a reminder why vaccination is vital

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  • Since viral mutations are a natural occurrence, the emergence of new variants is not surprising.
  • Vaccination is, however, a powerful tool to curb the spread of the virus and  prevent further mutations.
  • Where there are clusters of unvaccinated people, the chances of mutations developing are higher.

Not only are those who are unvaccinated against Covid-19 at higher risk of severe illness compared with those who are vaccinated, they are also fuelling the emergence of new variants, scientists have warned over the last few months.

On Thursday, scientists in South Africa announced the discovery of a new variant, Omicron (B.1.1.529), which may be behind a new spike in Covid-19 cases in the country, Health24 reported.

Although cases have been concentrated in Gauteng, they expressed concern that the variant may already be circulating elsewhere in the country.

The variant, which has yet to receive its Greek name by the World Health Organization (WHO), has a cluster of mutations scientists said may allow it to move faster through a community as well as potentially evade protection provided through vaccination or natural infection. 

However, this research is ongoing and more information will be released as soon as it becomes available, they said.

In the meantime, they urged people in SA to get vaccinated ahead of the expected fourth wave. 

Unvaccinated as target for virus

For new variants to emerge, the virus needs to infect and mutate inside a human host. Virus mutations simply refer to individual changes to the virus’s genetic code. 

The chances of these mutations happening, however, are higher in people who are vulnerable or susceptible to infection, including the unvaccinated.

The WHO explains

The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates – and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.

Vaccines limit risk of infection and spread of virus

Data suggest that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines available in SA offer high protection against severe Covid, including hospitalisation and death.

Some fully vaccinated people might still get Covid as no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection or stopping transmission of a virus. But the data also show that those with breakthrough infections (an infection after vaccination) are less likely to transmit the virus to others than those who are unvaccinated and contract Covid. 

“[Covid vaccines] reduce the risk of infection by 30–40% and even when there is a breakthrough infection, those people are less likely to transmit the virus by up to 70%,” Professor Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University, recently told Health24. 

And while a vaccinated person may have the same viral loads as an unvaccinated person, the duration of viral shedding (when a virus is released from the infected host) is much shorter in the former than in unvaccinated individuals, Madhi said in a webinar in September.

High vaccination coverage means less chance for variants 

The goal is for the majority of people to have immunity against the virus, which will also reduce the risk for those who, for whatever reason, remain unvaccinated, Professor Wolfgang Preiser, head of the Division of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University, told Health24 in July.

This will reduce overall infection massively and, if the virus has much less opportunity to infect people and spread, it will also have less opportunity to mutate into more infectious and virulent forms, he said.

In a letter published in the journal PNAS in September 2021, Professor Emanuel Goldman from the Department of Microbiology, New Jersey Medical School, wrote: 

An unvaccinated pool of individuals provides a reservoir for the virus to continue to grow and multiply, and therefore more opportunities for such variants to emerge. When this occurs within a background of a largely vaccinated population, natural selection will favour a variant that is resistant to the vaccine.

Low uptake in the country

Despite South Africa having sufficient vaccine doses, there are still pockets of individuals across the country who are not keen to take the shot. 

As of 25 November, just over 25 million doses of the vaccine had been administered across the country, of which only around 14.2 million were fully vaccinated.

Reporting by Reuters noted that due to the slow uptake of vaccination, the government had to delay the delivery of additional vaccines.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average of cases is increasing in SA. The new daily Covid-19 numbers rose to 2 465 new cases on Thursday.

Simple behavioural changes

A new Covid-19 variant detected in South Africa was unforeseen, but was not a complete surprise, Professor Adrian Puren, Acting Executive Director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said on 26 November. This is because viral mutations are a natural occurrence.

But while the scientists continue to work around the clock to gain a better understanding of the variant, he urged the public to remain calm and to be responsible by adopting simple behavioural changes to limit the spread of the virus.

In a statement about the new variant, the NICD said that it is likely that vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death. 

The most effective method to limit the transmissibility of the virus is to follow preventive measures, including the wearing of masks and wearing them correctly (covering both the nose and mouth), practising physical distancing, and keeping gatherings small and in well-ventilated spaces, said Puren. 

“And let’s not forget to vaccinate against Covid-19, as the more individuals who are vaccinated, the less chance there will be for future variants to emerge,” he added. 

Ian Sanne

In an update by the Health Department on Friday, Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19 member, Professor Ian Sanne, said:

"We have every indication that the vaccines are still effective in preventing severe disease and/or complications."

The data, however, is still small and the variant will need to be monitored going forward, he said.

Referring to Covid hospitalisation cases, Sanne said that the ratio of unvaccinated to vaccinated is 4:1 at this time.

"And so, people should still go out and get vaccinated. We are encouraging vaccination," he said.

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

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