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What do we know so far about the variant of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa?

Update

There are many thousands of COVID-19 virus variants that exist, most of which are not concerning. However, experts are concerned about a variant that is dominant in South Africa, also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351.  This variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples that date back to the start of October 2020. It has since become the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa and spread outside of South Africa to at least 20 countries, including the U.S., Norway, Japan, the U.K., and Austria. Most variants are not significant and in some cases can even weaken the virus. The South African variant is one that appears to be more contagious and more evasive of current vaccines. Its contagiousness is due to a mutation in the virus's spike protein that makes it easier to spread. The UK variant also has this protein, making the variants similar. There is no evidence so far to suggest that the South African variant causes more severe or more deadly cases of COVID-19. In a pre-print study of the Pfizer vaccine using blood samples from vaccinated individuals studying protection against two of the South Africa variant mutations, efficacy was just slightly less than the original 95%. Early results from a Moderna study of the vaccine’s efficacy against the variant suggest around the same efficacy (94.1%), although the immune response may not be as strong or prolonged.  Early results for Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggest some protection but reduced. Testing for the Novavax vaccine suggests a reduction from 89.3% efficacy against the virus to 60.1% efficacy against the variant, and early results from the Johnson & Johnson testing suggest a reduction from 72% efficacy to 52%. And finally, preliminary data on protection from Oxford’s AstraZeneca's vaccine suggests that it offers limited protection against the South Africa variant when mild disease is triggered, but experts state that it should still protect against severe disease.

This article was published on
February 17, 2021

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What our experts say

There are many thousands of COVID-19 virus variants that exist, most of which are not concerning. However, experts are concerned about a variant that is dominant in South Africa, also known as 501.V2 or B.1.351. 

This variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa, in samples that date back to the start of October 2020. It has since become the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa and spread outside of South Africa to at least 20 countries, including the U.S., Norway, Japan, the U.K., and Austria.

Most variants are not significant and in some cases can even weaken the virus. The South African variant is one that appears to be more contagious and more evasive of current vaccines.

Its contagiousness is due to a mutation in the virus's spike protein that makes it easier to spread. The UK variant also has this protein, making the variants similar. There is no evidence so far to suggest that the South African variant causes more severe or more deadly cases of COVID-19.

In a pre-print study of the Pfizer vaccine using blood samples from vaccinated individuals studying protection against two of the South Africa variant mutations, efficacy was just slightly less than the original 95%. Early results from a Moderna study of the vaccine’s efficacy against the variant suggest around the same efficacy (94.1%), although the immune response may not be as strong or prolonged. 

Early results for Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggest some protection but reduced. Testing for the Novavax vaccine suggests a reduction from 89.3% efficacy against the virus to 60.1% efficacy against the variant, and early results from the Johnson & Johnson testing suggest a reduction from 72% efficacy to 52%. And finally, preliminary data on protection from Oxford’s AstraZeneca's vaccine suggests that it offers limited protection against the South Africa variant when mild disease is triggered, but experts state that it should still protect against severe disease.

Context and background

Viruses constantly change as they reproduce in order to keep spreading into more cells. These changes are called “viral mutations.” Mutations create a new, updated version of the virus, which we call a “strain” or “variant” (though other similar words include “lineage” and “mutant”). These variants may have different properties than previous versions of the virus and may allow the virus to infect more people or may cause more severe illness. Many variants of COVID-19 have been documented globally, and scientists are continuing to monitor the virus as it changes and spreads around the world.

Resources

  1. No evidence for increased transmissibility from recurrent mutations in SARS-CoV-2 (Nature Communications)
  2. Tracking changes in SARS-CoV-2 Spike: evidence that D614G increases infectivity of the COVID-19 virus (Cell)
  3. The D614G mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein reduces S1 shedding and increases infectivity (bioRxiv)
  4. This coronavirus mutation has taken over the world. Scientists are trying to understand why. (Washington Post)
  5. Viral Mutation Rates (Journal of Virology)
  6. South Africa coronavirus variant: What is the risk? (BBC)
  7. Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants (CDC)
  8. Fast-spreading COVID variant can elude immune responses (Nature)
  9. Neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 spike 69/70 deletion, E484K, and N501Y variants by 2 BNT162b2 vaccine-elicited sera (bioRxiv)

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