Public consciousness of a mutation of the Coronavirus or the South African Variant has led to a lot of questions from a confused public on how to proceed. Is it really 50% more contagious than normal coronavirus? Do we still have to get vaccinated? And what does this mean for re-opening?
The South African Variant was first discovered some time in October 2020, as a mutated strain of the Coronavirus. It’s one of many variants that are currently circulating in the South African population. And while it’s normal for viruses to experience mutations, the South African Variant is displaying some traits that many scientists find alarming.
Part of what makes the variant, also called 501.V2, so dangerous is the way in which it has mutated. Viruses all have spike proteins, spikes that allow the virus to “hook” itself onto cells in order to infect it. However 501.V2, has mutated in such a way that its spike proteins bond much more easily with human cells. The effect is a strain of COVID-19, that scientists theorize to be much more transmissible than its predecessor. According to the team of Kristian Andersen, virologist at the Scripps Research Institute, the transmission rate of the South African Variant could be 30 to 40% higher.
Concerningly this strain seems to be taking hold in America and the U.K. as well. As of February 8, 2021, only eight cases of the variant have been reported in the U.S., from people who had not been traveling recently, implying that the virus is already circulating in the U.S. and in the U.K. So far, 44 cases of variants — though not necessarily 501.V2 — have been reported in the United Kingdom. At this time 31 other countries have reported cases of the South African Variant.
A part of the research surrounding the South African Variant and other variants is examining if the vaccine will be effective in treating these new strains. A way in which this is tested is extracting the blood of people who have already received the COVID-19 vaccine and determining whether or not the antibodies in the blood can fight against the virus.
Early trials have determined that while not as effective against the virus, certain coronavirus vaccines are effective against COVID-19. According to trials Moderna can be used for the South African Virus, though its strength is lessened. Jassen also seems to be somewhat effective. Overall though these tests are still in their early stages, so it is impossible to draw conclusions about these vaccines’ efficacy.
Overall despite the bleakness surrounding these new strains of Coronavirus, there is still hope for the future. Stuart Ray M.D. says “Most of the genetic changes we see in this virus are like the scars people accumulate over a lifetime — incidental marks of the road, most of which have no great significance or functional role,” Whether or not vaccines are effective, vaccination for Coronavirus will go along way in preventing further spread of COVID. Despite the threat of new strains of Coronavirus, scientists and progress will allow us to leave COVID-19 in the past.