Can the South African Covid-19 strain evade vaccines?

Scientists fear new mutation may be less susceptible to existing inoculations

A South African woman walks through Durban wearing a mask
(Image credit: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty)

Pressure is mounting on the government to enforce stronger border controls to stem the arrival of the South African Covid strain in the UK, amid fears that vaccinations may not protect against the new variant.

Gene sequencing has so far uncovered 105 cases of the strain in the UK, 11 of which were not linked to patients who had travelled abroad. Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was “incredibly worried” about the variant.

However, research suggests that three vaccines that are cleared for use do offer at least some defence against the Covid mutation.

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How is it different from other Covid variants?

All viruses mutate as they spread from person to person, but most mutations don’t lead to any substantial changes in the virus. However, the one discovered in South Africa last month had “evolved more than normal”, says The Times. “Even more important, the changes almost all involved the spike protein, improving the virus’s ability to attach to human cells.”

Is it more infectious?

It does seem to be. “Preliminary studies suggest the variant is associated with a higher viral load, which may suggest potential for increased transmissibility,” according to the World Health Organization. The new variant, known as 501.V2, has quickly replaced other mutations in many parts of South Africa, suggesting that it spreads more rapidly than they can.

Is it more deadly?

“At this stage there is no evidence that 501.V2 is associated with higher severity of infection,” says the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Scientists will not be able to give a definitive answer for some time, but hospital admission and mortality rates appear to be similar for all identified variants.

Will the vaccines still work against it?

“Several experts” originally said that vaccines including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs may not be able to protect against the new strains, CNBC reported in early January.

But Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England has since said that research suggests that three vaccines currently cleared for use provide protection “at a level higher than the minimum standard set by the World Health Organization and the US Food and Drug Administration”, ITV News reports.

“We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death,” she said.

Trials carried out by Johnson & Johnson showed that its single-shot jab is about 20% to 30% less effective against the South African variant. Further studies are underway.

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