The new South African coronavirus variant is not anticipated to bypass the protection of current vaccines, an expert has said, but it could if it continues to mutate.
Scientists say not enough is known about the mutation to make assumptions, and the changes to the virus are consistent with it being more transmissible. However, it is not known whether they will affect disease severity.
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “incredibly worried” about the South African variant, describing it as a “very, very significant problem”. On 23 December, he said two cases of the strain had been identified in the UK.
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“The ‘South African variant’ carries a mutation in the spike protein called E484K, which is not present in the ‘UK strain’,” said Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director, UCL Genetics Institute, University College London.
“The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps the virus SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination.
“It is not anticipated that this mutation is sufficient for the ‘South African’ variant to bypass the protection provided by current vaccines. It’s possible that new variants will affect the efficacy of the COVID vaccines, but we shouldn’t make that assumption yet about the South African one.”
Lawrence S Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, believes that further mutations of the South African variant could cause problems.
“While changes in the UK variant are unlikely to impact the effectiveness of current vaccines, the accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection,” he said.
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Reader Q&A: What can the world do to avoid future pandemics like COVID-19?
Asked by: Anita Hashtrudi, Scotland
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to be the last one that we experience. But there are things that we can do on a societal and national level to minimise the chances of a new pandemic occurring, and to ensure that the world is better prepared when one does occur.
Pandemic-causing viruses typically circulate in a population of animals before they jump to humans. So cutting down on activities that put us in close contact with wild animals, such as wildlife trading and ‘wet’ markets, will reduce the chances of a virus jumping from animals to humans. Tackling deforestation and climate change will also help, as both of these problems can lead humans to migrate into new areas where wild animals live.
Second, we need countries around the world to strengthen their surveillance of existing viruses, and we need to watch for any new viruses emerging in wild animals. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is thought to have originally come from bats, but viruses can reside in many other animals, including pigs, monkeys and birds. We also need systems in place so that any new type of human infection is rapidly identified and globally reported.
Finally, we need to strengthen countries’ public health infrastructure. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries struggled to develop robust national testing and tracing programmes. With these programmes in place, we would be able to contain new outbreaks more rapidly. We can also ensure that we have vaccine development and manufacturing facilities in place that can rapidly create vaccines for new diseases.
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