Experts are concerned about a South African variant of Covid present in the UK - what you need to know

Friday, 8th January 2021, 3:38 pm
Updated Friday, 8th January 2021, 3:39 pm

A new strain of coronavirus identified in South Africa and present in the UK has sent shockwaves through the country.

At a time when the Covid vaccines are being rolled out, following the approval of the Oxford and Pfizer jabs, concern has grown over the virus mutating.

A new strain of the virus found in the UK prior to Christmas could be up to 70 percent more transmissible than regular Covid, and led to tougher measures introduced in London and parts of south east England.

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The South African strain of the virus is thought to be 60 percent more transmissible than regular Covid while studies continue to find out how potent the mutation is and how effective the vaccines are.

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However, UK health secretary Matt Hancock has now said he is "incredibly worried" about the South African variant.

So what do we know about this strain of the virus?

Why does the new variant spread faster?

The South African variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, carries a mutation called E484K, which is not present in the UK strain.

Scientists have discovered the variant has a change to its spike protein - what the virus uses to gain entry to human cells - which has caused some alarm.

This is because it is also the bit of the virus that the vaccines are designed around to produce an antibody response which fights off any infection.

Professor Francois Balloux, from University College London, said: "The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps the virus SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination."

Is the new South African variant more deadly?

Even though both the South African and UK Covid variants appear to be more transmissible, there is no current evidence to suggest they cause more serious illness, say experts.

“It is not anticipated that this mutation is sufficient for the ‘South African’ variant to bypass the protection provided by current vaccines," said professor Balloux.

"It’s possible that new variants will affect the efficacy of the Covid vaccines, but we shouldn’t make that assumption yet about the South African one."

Measures introduced such as staying at home, social distancing, face coverings and washing your hands will help limit the spread of Covid.

What are the symptoms of the new South African variant?

Like the original form of Covid, symptoms of Covid-19 include a high temperature, continuous cough and loss of taste or smell.

Scientific experts are yet to discover whether the new strains of the virus cause different or worse symptoms than the first.

One of the scientists who identified the new variant in South Africa, professor Richard Lessells of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform in Durban, said it was highly unlikely patients will experience different symptoms.

“It’s highly unlikely that it would have any different clinical symptoms,” he said.

“There’s no reason to believe that and that wouldn’t fit with our understanding. But one of our concerns is could there be a difference in the progression of the disease and a more aggressive disease course.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, said the new UK variant was not causing those infected to get a more serious illnesses.

How effective are the vaccines?

Both strains of the virus share the N501Y mutation, which is thought to make the variants more infectious, and has caused international concern.

But research conducted at the University of Texas found the Pfizer vaccine stimulated a strong immune response against the N501Y mutation.

Dr Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer's top viral vaccine scientists, said the study - yet to be peer reviewed - was encouraging.

“We've now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That's the good news,” he said. “That doesn't mean that the 17th won't.”

While scientists at the University of Oxford are looking at the impact its vaccine has on the new variants and hope to have more data within weeks.