South African study into virus strain raises vaccine fears

Pharmacist Jason Hyde fills syringes with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine as first responders wait to receive it at UMass Memorial Hospital in Marlborough Massachusetts

Commenting on the study, clinical virologist Julian Tang from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, said this variant can escape neutralising antibody responses largely due to the presence of two mutations in the spike (S) region - one in the 484th amino acid position and the other in the 417th molecule of the protein.

The whole question of COVID-19 reinfections, when a person comes infected with the disease a second time, is not deeply understood, although it's thought that most people have some protection from reinfection as their immune system has developed neutralizing antibodies to the virus.

In the research, the scientists, including those from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, tested the neutralisation activity of plasma from patients who recovered from prior infection with other strains of the coronavirus against the 501Y.V2 variant. According to study As per a recent study published in the preprint platform bioRxiv, which is yet to be peer reviewed, 501Y.V2 has mutations in nine parts of its spike protein, which makes it more efficient at entering and infecting the human cells. "This makes it very unlikely that the United Kingdom variant will escape from the protection provided by the vaccine", said Jonathan Stoye, a virus scientist at Britain's Francis Crick Institute who was not involved in the research.

In the other half, antibody levels were reduced and the risk of re-infection couldn't be determined, according to the institute.

Calling the findings are "potentially concerning", Liam Smeeth, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, however said these are laboratory findings, adding that "it would be unwise to extrapolate to clinical effects in humans at this stage". Unfortunately, it's still unclear whether the South African COVID-19 strain will still effectively respond to the vaccines, but scientists are closely investigating this.

The 501Y.V2 variant is 50% more infectious than previous ones, South African researchers said this week.

The 501Y.V2 variant was identified by South African genomics experts late past year.

"Convalescent serum studies suggest natural antibodies are less effective", Abdool Karim said, introducing the research, "(but) current data suggest the new variant is not more severe". "This virus can evolve, adapting to us". If this is true at six months, as in this study, it is safe to assume it is probably still true for longer periods, he added.

South Africa's new variant: What is it?

"Our immune systems are extraordinarily clever", Willem Hanekom, one of the team, said. When researchers tracked outcomes of 8,515 COVID-19 patients admitted to 88 U.S. Veterans Affairs hospitals in 2020, they found that survival rates improved between March and August.

But he said that the variant didn't seem to be causing a significant increase in mortality rates. "The more the public can do to avoid infections, the better", she added.

Open in an external browser for a Reuters graphic on vaccines and treatments in development.



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