New Covid-19 virus variant detected in SA: What we've learnt so far

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  • A new Covid-19 variant has been detected in SA, and scientists are concerned it may have spread to other parts of the country.
  • The variant has a large number of mutations in its spike protein, which may enable it to transmit easily from person to person.
  • It may also allow it to escape protection from vaccines and natural infection, but lab studies are underway to confirm this.

Earlier on Thursday, the Department of Health and scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa announced the detection of a new Covid-19 virus variant in South Africa.

READ | Covid-19: Scientists monitoring new virus variant detected in SA, Botswana

Known as B.1.1.529, the variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein – the part of the virus that latches onto human cells, and which most vaccines target.

The scientists noted that the discovery of the variant was a cause for concern in South Africa.

Here are the key takeaways from the briefing.

Is this variant only in SA?

The variant was detected in South Africa after collaborative efforts. While it was detected in SA, experts can't yet say if it originated in the country.

Bioinformatician and the director of KRISP, Professor Tulio De Oliveira, cautioned:

"It’s very important to understand that, even though we detected it here, it doesn’t mean that this variant is from South Africa. It was just detected in South Africa and we shouldn’t use any country name [to avoid] discrimination."

The variant was also detected in Botswana and in Hong Kong in a traveller from SA.

According to the National institute for Communicable diseases, there have been 22 cases detected in South Africa so far.

What sets it apart from other variants?

The considerable number of mutations are of concern and came as a "surprise" to the scientists, said De Oliveira.

It has a large number of mutations across all the proteins – some of which are familiar to scientists, and some which are not. Some of the mutations have been seen in other variants of interest, and variants of concern.

As it stands, the scientists are working to better understand the impact of these mutations.

What are the predictions about the impact of the mutations?

The variant’s mutations may give the virus better transmissibility. In other words, it may spread more efficiently from person to person, said Dr Richard Lessells, a leading infectious diseases expert involved in surveillance of Covid-19 variants. 

Lessells added that it may also potentially evade immunity derived through natural infection and vaccination.

Predictions can be made, said Lessells, but the team will only know its true impact after conducting laboratory studies. That work is already ongoing.

Are there any positives to take away?

The good news is that this variant has been detected early. This will allow authorities to better prepare for the next wave.

Additionally, according to Professor Lessells, B.1.1.529 can be detected via a PCR test, as opposed to relying on whole genome sequencing which can take days. This will, fortunately, help scientists track the variant and understand its spread.

Scientists are working to better understand this variant, and a few key questions will need to be answered:

  • Transmissibility: How will the mutations impact how efficiently the virus will spread?
  • Vaccines: Will the variant affect the protection offered by vaccines?
  • Risk or reinfection: Will previous infection protection against the new variant?
  • Severity of disease: Understanding if disease will be more severe, or milder – in vaccinated people as well.

So, while scientists are learning more about the variant, how do we protect ourselves?

Non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) and vaccinations remain critical.

While the scientists are monitoring and studying this variant, they highlighted that the vaccines remain the critical tool to protect people against the disease. De Oliveira urged the public to avoid superspreader events in order to curb the spread of the variant. 

Health Minister Joe Phaahla also weighed in, saying that the emergence of the new variant "reinforces the fact that this invisible enemy we are dealing with is very unpredictable".

He encouraged South Africans to continue following Covid-19 public health measures, including avoiding crowds, practicing physical distancing, and wearing face masks. 

"We also have the additional tool, vaccination, which will help us to avert serious illness including ending up in hospitals and ICU and even succumbing to this virus," he said.

Lessells also said: "The vaccines remain the critical tool for protecting us from severe disease and protecting our health system from another surge in cases." 

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

READ | Covid-19: Scientists monitoring new virus variant detected in SA, Botswana

READ | Covid-19: How Africa’s top scientists have tracked emerging variants, ensuring we’re not left behind

READ | Fewer hospital admissions projected for SA’s fourth Covid-19 wave, but bed capacity may be an issue

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