What do we know about the South African variant of SARS-Cov-2

What do we know about the South African variant of SARS-Cov-2

Some speculate it is even more contagious than the English variant, but it no longer seems dangerous. Experts believe it shouldn't completely evade vaccines, but solid tests and evidence are needed

(photo: mohamed Hassan via Pixabay) A little over a year after identification, SARS-Cov-2 continues to scare us. The alarm has not yet subsided over the appearance of the English variant - which according to local authorities is causing an exorbitant number of new infections in the United Kingdom (so much so that it has forced the government to call a new, hard lockdown) - which is now up to the South African variant throwing panic and havoc. Rightly? Here is what is known about this mutation so far.

501.V2 from South Africa

The South African variant is called 501.V2. Like the English variant, it carries the N501Y mutation on the coronavirus spike protein, but differs in the presence of other alterations of its genetic code, in particular for the E484K mutation. The two variants are similar, experts say, but they originated separately.

As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), 501.V2 was first identified in South Africa in mid-November 2020 within a routine epidemiological surveillance program, and was confirmed by the country's authorities on December 18, soon taking over the other circulating variants.

Experts believe it is possible that variant 501. V2 began to circulate as early as the end of August in South Africa and that the movement of people from the country allowed it to spread to other states. Cases of the South African variant, in fact, have already been reported in the United Kingdom (which given the internal situation was among the first to block connections with South Africa), Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Australia and other countries.

Is it more contagious?

Studies on the characteristics of the 501.V2 variant are still ongoing. A document, not yet published, reports preliminary data on the spread and highlights the association with a high viral load. This suggests (but does not prove) that it may be more contagious, perhaps even more than the English variant.

Is it more dangerous?

The latest WHO report reiterates that “there are no clear evidence that the new variant is associated with more severe forms of the disease or with worse outcomes ”. However, if it turns out to be responsible for an increase in infections it could result in more hospitalizations and more deaths.

Will it be resistant to vaccines?

Although there is an additional unknown (the E484K mutation) compared to to the English variant, the scientists who are working on the characterization are confident that the new vaccines against Covid-19 are still effective and provide protection against different variants of the coronavirus, including the South African one. Vaccines, in fact, would promote the production of different types of antibodies and the virus would have to mutate a lot and substantially to completely evade the action of the immune system. However, it is not excluded that the effectiveness is lower and it will take at least a couple of weeks to get some more information.

Let's stay calm and sequence

Although it is legitimate to worry and do everything to contain the spread of the coronavirus in its various forms, experts insist, we should not be surprised if the virus will continue to mutate or panic for each new variant that will be identified.

Right now with the arrival of vaccines, but with slow immunization campaigns, a decisive increase in efforts to monitor changes in the virus is desirable.

"Never before has this step change been important, given the start of vaccinations," he explains the immunologist Antonella Viola on social networks. "A vaccination campaign extended over time, as ours will necessarily be, due to the objective difficulty of vaccinating the entire population and the problems in the supply of vaccines, will facilitate the selection of variants resistant to neutralizing antibodies. In other words, it means that the virus will continue to mutate, because its circulation is still very high, and, obviously, it will undergo the selective pressure operated by the immune system, favoring the spread of variants that are not blocked. If so far we have repeated that to control the pandemic it was necessary to carry out tests, trace and organize hospitals for treatment, now, in this new phase, the imperative becomes to contain, sequence and vaccinate ".

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