It is common for viruses to undergo mutation. The more often that a virus is able to transfer from one person to another, the more likely it is to mutate.
The Coronavirus, which emerged from China in 2019, has undergone several changes, producing new COVID-19 variants that are somehow more transmissible. One of those is the South Africa variant.
Although this version of the virus spreads faster, scientists say there is no evidence that it is deadlier. But still, its quick transmissibility would mean that the number of serious infections and fatalities might rise to alarming numbers.
What is the South Africa COVID Variant?
The South African variant, also known as 501Y.V2 or B.1.351, is a mutated version of the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. It was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay as cases were confirmed in early October of 2020. A vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Zambia are due to this new variant. In Zimbabwe, over 60% of COVID cases are of this new strain.
The first case of the South African variant in the US was reported in January of 2021. Although it emerged independently of the United Kingdom (UK) B.1.1.7 variant, they share similar mutations.
Impact and Severity of the South African Variant
Based on the existing new COVID-19 variant cases, there is no evidence that it is deadlier than the other strains. However, just like the UK strain, the transmission of the virus is faster. Six weeks since the variant was discovered, there has been a spike of new cases in South Africa. And the number is far worse than in previous waves.
Existence of the New COVID-19 Variant in the US
A few cases of the new Coronavirus variant from South Africa have been recorded in the United States. This is a huge public health challenge. The country is still dealing with over 3,000 deaths daily due to the first COVID variant and now this.
The two new cases were identified in South Carolina, Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. These individuals are not connected to each other in any way. They also have not traveled prior to testing positive for the South African variant.
Health officials are concerned that there may be more people who got infected but are yet to be identified. Contact tracing efforts are being made to identify those people and get them isolated as soon as possible.
Vaccines Vs. the South Africa COVID Strain
People are greatly concerned about how easier and faster it is for the new strain from South Africa to spread. What’s more alarming is that early vaccine trial data suggests that the existing COVID-19 vaccines might not work well against it.
Some say the vaccine could work. Some say not even a complete dose would be as protective, considering the significant number of mutations the spike protein has accumulated. The same might be true with the antibodies created from a natural infection.
Pfizer says their vaccine could only stimulate low levels of neutralizing antibodies when used against the new variant. However, that amount of antibodies is still enough to protect an individual. The company will also begin testing on a redesigned booster shot to help the vaccine adjust whenever a new variant emerges.
Moderna also reported that there is indeed a reduction in the immune response. That is even when the vaccine is genetically engineered to imitate the South African COVID-19 variant. But, the reduction is not significant enough to make the vaccine any less effective.
South African authorities have offered its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to the African Union so that they can be distributed somewhere else. After a small-scale study they conducted, they are a bit disappointed that the vaccine has limited efficacy against the new strain.
They have already secured about nine million doses from Johnson & Johnson, one-dose vaccines which are yet to be approved or authorized.
What is Being Done About It
The best that can be done for now is to monitor the new variant closely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies are working to effectively detect the South African strain. They are also exerting their best effort to characterize emerging variants. As they are investigating the SARS-CoV-2 variant infections, they are also communicating new information and updates to the public through its website.
As for the federal government, President Joe Biden promised to deliver 100 million injections during his first 100 days in office. He suggested that 1.5 million shots a day is possible and could help significantly in the fight against the new variant.
Your Role in Helping Prevent Transmission
The pandemic is far from over. Although difficult, there are ways to stay safe and COVID-free. Never assume that you can only acquire the new Coronavirus strain if you travel. There may be a carrier nearby so always observe proper social distancing. As much as possible, avoid crowded places. Get tested regularly when you feel like you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19. Always wash your hands and wear a protective face mask, even if you have already been vaccinated. Preventing the spread of the virus will also keep it from mutating further and creating even worse variants.