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The new coronavirus variant in South Africa – Are concerns justified?

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South Africa

South Africa has identified a brand new variant of the novel coronavirus. In which authorities believe is driving a surge in COVID-19 infections that would overwhelm its health care system.

Several countries, including Britain, which has found the mutant variant in cases linked to South Africa. They have banned flights from South Africa, disrupting holiday travel and frustrating tour operators.

WHAT IS THE NEW VARIANT?

The new variant, remarked as 501.V2, was discovered by a network of scientists around South Africa who are tracking the genetics of the SARS-COV-2 virus.

Focusing of the variant appears to be within the south and southeast regions of the country. It has been dominating findings from collected samples since October, they say.

First identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, along South Africa’s East Coast, it spread rapidly to other districts within the Eastern Cape, following the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal (KZN) provinces.

Scientists say the variant is different from others circulating in South Africa. This is because it’s multiple mutations within the important “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect human cells.

It has also been related to a higher viral load, meaning a better concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies. Which can contribute to higher levels of transmission.

Between 80% and 90% of the latest cases within the country are carrying the mutant variant, according to health authorities.

ARE THE CONCERNS JUSTIFIED?

All viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19, change over time.  Throughout the world, there are many variations of this virus.

South African scientists say there’s no clear evidence at this stage that this variant is related to more severe disease or worse outcomes. However, it does appear to spread faster than previous iterations. “What went on with the sheer number of infections growing in no time is that’s overwhelmed really fast the health care system,” said Professor Tulio de Oliveira. He is the director of the KZN Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP). He also helped conduct genome sequencing on South Africa’s mutant variant. “And when that happens, we have an enormous spike of increased mortality.”

The positivity rate – or the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive – stood at 26% as of Dec. 23, around double the common rate of infection before December. In which the virus showed signs of waning. Within the first wave of infections, which peaked during the winter months between June and July, the positivity rate reached as high as 27%. “The rate of spread is way faster than the first wave. In that we will surpass the height of the first wave within the coming days,” health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday.

IS IT DIFFERENT TO THE UK VARIANT?

The variants reported by South Africa and the UK share a common change. Which within the spike protein that will make them more infectious. But they’re different variants, and sequence analysis reveals that they originate separately, the World Health Organization said.

Dr Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said, “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the united kingdom variant. However, both contain a strangely high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

WILL COVID-19 VACCINES PROTECT AGAINST THIS VARIANT?

South African authorities say it’s too early to mention whether the currently deployed vaccines in Britain and therefore the US, or other COVID-19 shots in development, will protect against the new variant.

Vaccine developers including AstraZeneca, BioNTech and Moderna Inc said in the week that they expect their shots to still work against the united kingdom variant.

 

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