South Africa's New COVID Variant 50 Percent More Transmissible Than Previous Strains

SARS-CoV-2 seen under an electron microscope. Image Credit: NIAID CC BY 2.0

The South African COVID-19 ministerial advisory committee announced yesterday that the new variant spreading across the country is more contagious than the original variant. While that is a major concern, current data suggests that is not more severe.

This version of the virus SARS-CoV-2 is known as 501.V2. Together with the UK variant, this new strain of the virus has raised concern due to its predominance compared to other variations. The committee has drawn these conclusions based on the spread of the variant across all nine provinces that make up the country.

In the Western Cape province, the virus took 54 days to reach 100,000 people compared to 107 days during the first wave. That means it is spreading 50 percent faster. In the KwaZulu-Natal province, it took 54 days to reach that many people in the first wave, and 33 days in the second wave, making it 39 percent faster.

This variant was first reported back in December and while this new data paints a clearer picture, there are still many unknowns regarding how the mutations have changed other properties of the virus. A crucial question is whether current vaccines are effective in training our immune system against the new strain. The early evidence suggests so far they will be, but the committee is waiting for further studies.

“We don’t yet have an answer but we’re expecting an answer very soon,” COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee Chairperson, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, said in a statement. “There’s much to speculate on this, but we want to see actual data but it’s not yet available.”

South Africa has recorded more than 1.3 million cases of COVID-19, the highest in the continent. Its death toll is currently around 37,000, the worst in all of Africa. 501.V2 has already seen beyond the national borders in 20 other countries including the United Kingdom.

These findings come as the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, referred to the “me-first” approach in many rich countries as leading to the continuation of the pandemic.

"I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries," Dr Tedros said during the WHO Executive Board session. "Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering."

As of today, there have been 95.7 million cases of COVID-19 around the world. The disease has led to the death of over 2 million people and long-term health conditions for 4 million people.

For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.

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