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South African coronavirus mutation might be a threat to vaccines

Published Jan 4th, 2021 5:12PM EST
Coronavirus Mutation
Image: M.Rode-Foto/Adobe
  • British health officials are more worried about the South African coronavirus mutation than the UK mutation.
  • British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said of the South African strain that it is a ”very significant problem,” and that’s why the UK blocked travel to the country.
  • Researchers still need to determine whether current vaccines will work on both strains, but some worry that the South African strain might not be affected by the vaccines.

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, mutate all the time. The novel coronavirus developed a significant mutation early in the pandemic, believed to have increased its infectivity. Researchers are following these mutations closely for many reasons. For starters, mutations are important for vaccine research, as the drugs will have to be adapted for new strains just as it happens with the flu. Secondly, genetic sequencing can prove reinfection with the novel coronavirus, and COVID-19 immunity is another topic the world needs more data on. Finally, knowing exactly how these strains evolve and mutate is important for crafting new protocols to prevent and deal with infections.

Two countries announced two significant coronavirus mutations in the final weeks of 2020. The UK’s B.1.1.7 and South Africa’s 501.V2 both made the news in a matter of days. Both are more infectious than their progenitors, initial reports said, but we mostly focused on the UK variant. However, British experts believe the South African strain might be more dangerous than B.1.1.7, as it could have developed changes that would allow it to evade vaccines.

B.1.1.7’s increased infectivity seems evident, as the UK is experiencing a major spike in cases, registering new pandemic records for the country. The strain doesn’t cause more severe COVID-19, and people who survived the illness do not seem to be at risk of reinfection. Dr. Anthony Fauci said as much a few days ago, implying that vaccines would also work against this variant. Vaccine makers, including BioNTech and Moderna, said they expect their drugs to work on B.1.1.7 but require more testing.

The 501.V2 strain has some similarities with B.1.1.7, but they’re not identical. They both include collections of several distinct mutations. Reports from South Africa indicated that the mutation might also impact the severity of the illness, with more young patients seen developing complications.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC on Monday that the South African strain is more concerning than B.1.1.7.

“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” he told the BBC. “This is a very, very significant problem … and it’s even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

While Hancock did not elaborate or share additional data to support his claims, CNBC reports that researchers are worried that the South African strain might evade vaccines.

“They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” Oxford University’s John Bell told Times Radio. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the (virus’ spike) protein.”

Bell said there were questions as to whether the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines could be disabled by 501.V2. He said the Oxford drug team is investigating the effects of the two strains on the vaccines. His gut feeling was that the drug would work against B.1.1.7, but he’s uncertain of the South African version.

The expert said that if the vaccines don’t work against one of the new strains, the drug could be adapted. The process would not take a year. BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin said a few weeks ago that the company would need six weeks to modify the vaccine for a new strain.

A similar thing happens with the flu vaccines that have to be updated every year to account for the various mutations some of the flu viruses might have acquired.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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