Getting to grips with . . .

The South African Covid-19 strain: what we know so far

Scientists fear that the new mutation may be less susceptible to vaccines

The strain of coronavirus identified in South Africa just before Christmas may represent more of a threat than the one first detected in Kent earlier in December, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned.

“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant,” Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. “This is a very, very significant problem… even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

How is it different from other Covid variants?

All viruses mutate as they spread from person to person, but most mutations don’t lead to any substantial changes in the virus. However, the one discovered in South Africa last month had “evolved more than normal”, says The Times. “Even more important, the changes almost all involved the spike protein, improving the virus’s ability to attach to human cells.”

Is it more infectious?

It does seem to be. “Preliminary studies suggest the variant is associated with a higher viral load, which may suggest potential for increased transmissibility,” according to the World Health Organization

The new variant, known as 501.V2, has quickly replaced other mutations in many parts of South Africa, suggesting that it spreads more rapidly than they can.

Is it more deadly?

“At this stage there is no evidence that 501.V2 is associated with higher severity of infection,” says the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Scientists will not be able to give a definitive answer for some time, but hospital admission and mortality rates appear to be similar for all identified variants.

Will the vaccines still work against it?

“Several experts have said they expect vaccines - such as those from Pfizer and BioNTech, and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca - to protect against the new strains,” says CNBC.

But doubts have been raised by John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford and a member of the UK’s Vaccine Task Force. “My gut feeling is the vaccine will be still effective against the Kent strain,” he told Times Radio. “I don’t know about the South African strain. There’s a big question mark about that.” 

How long would it take to develop a new vaccine?

Bell had better news on that front. “It might take a month, or six weeks, to get a new vaccine, so everybody should stay calm,” he said.

“It’s going to be fine, but we’re now in a game of cat and mouse because these are not the only two variants we’re going to see. We’re going to see lots of variants.”

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