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Should We Be Concerned with the New South African Variant of COVID-19?

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What you need to know about the South African variant of the SARS- CoV-2:

This variant has a different “spike” protein which has some different clinical characteristics than the original virus. This variant was identified in South Africa and cases have been identified in the UK and now in the US in very small numbers. According to the CDC, there’s no evidence the new strain is more deadly or causes a more severe disease.  One of the South African variants, 501Y.V2, appears to be about 50% more contagious, meaning it does a better job than the original virus at getting into human cells.

When examining blood from 44 South Africans who recovered from COVID-19, more than 90% showed reduced immunity to the new variant, and almost half of those vaccinated had no protection at all against it, according to a study published recently though not yet peer-reviewed.

The variant has reduced the level of protection offered by virtually all the vaccines, but most vaccines show satisfactory efficacy in protecting against severe cases and death caused by this version of the virus. Astra Zeneca halted administration of their vaccine in a trial in South Africa because it does not appear to protect participants against mild to moderate illness.  The pharmaceutical company is aggressively researching if they can add reagents that may be able to work against this new spike protein. 

It is important to remember that viruses mutate so this variant is not a surprise. 

What this illustrates once again is that the pandemic is not going to end in one Big Bang. Vaccines are likely going to have to change to keep pace with the mutating virus.

Progress will be incremental. But vaccines are still the way out of this.

Prerana Sangani, MD, February 16, 2021