Updated 01/12/2020: A pre-print paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, by Pfizer has suggested that the variants should still respond to their vaccine. Scientists are also remaining confident that the South African and the UK variant is unlikely to "completely negate" COVID vaccines.
Along with the rising concern of the UK COVID-19 variant sweeping across the world, the UK health minister has now said the new South African variant might become an even greater problem. Much of the fear centers around whether the South African variant might affect the efficacy of the vaccine, although this remains unconfirmed for now. Scientists have said there’s good reason to be very wary of the variant but cautioned that we need more evidence before making any quick assumptions. So, before you panic, here's what you need to know.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Monday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa."
“This is a very, very significant problem... even more of a problem than the UK new variant,” he said.
“My concern is that it seems even more easy to transmit than the new variant we’ve seen here [in the UK],” Hancock added, speaking to ITV News.
Viruses are constantly undergoing mutations and variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been around since the beginning of the pandemic, but health authorities are becoming especially concerned with two variants: one first detected in the UK and another in South Africa. South Africa first announced the detection of the new variant in three provinces of South Africa on 18 December 2020. The UK also detected two cases of the South African variant on 23 December, although it's also dealing with another distinct variant, first detected in the UK back in September. The UK and South Africa are both in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 cases, many of which are associated with the variants in question.
There are mounting fears that both variants may be more transmissible. The World Health Organization said on 31 December: "preliminary studies suggest the variant [in South Africa] is associated with a higher viral load, which may suggest potential for increased transmissibility."
Furthermore, there has also been some discussion that the South African variant has to potential to affect the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. So far, there’s no evidence yet that the Covid-19 vaccines approved so far won’t work against the new strains. However, scientists in the UK have warned that early research indicates the South African variant contains certain mutations on the viruses’ spike protein that are a worry in regards to vaccine efficacy.
“The ‘South African variant’ carries a mutation in the spike protein called E484K, which is not present in the ‘UK strain’. 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,” commented Professor Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director of the UCL Genetics Institute at University College London.
“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,” explains Professor Balloux.
Despite the very real concerns, scientists have also called for calm when skimming through sensational headlines about the variant. Instead of panic, the best course of action is to wait for more evidence to come to light and follow the public health protections in your area.
“A drumbeat of nightmare scenarios about this new variant does nothing but create anxiety because too little is known and there is nothing we can do about it at the moment,” remarked Professor James Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and the University of Oxford.