What the COVID-19 variant from South Africa means for pandemic, vaccines

Like all other viruses, COVID-19 continues to mutate.

Fears are rising over the latest variant, this time discovered in South Africa.

Read more: COVID-19 variant found in South Africa might be a problem for vaccines, experts warn

There is worry among some experts about whether current vaccines will be effective against the variant — called 501Y.V2 — that’s rapidly replacing other strains in the country, but not everyone is convinced.

Here’s what we know so far:

What is the new variant?

There are already many different versions, or variants, of COVID-19 circulating in different parts of the world. Most of these variants have not been meaningful enough to draw concern from experts.

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Unlike other variants, the one from South Africa carries multiple extensive mutations — tiny genetic changes that happen as a virus tries to spread and thrive. They include K417N, E484K and N501Y.

Some of these mutations alter the virus’ spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells.

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The placement and accumulation of these mutations are what makes this variant worrying, said Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

It suggests that this variant is not only more contagious but possibly less susceptible to the immune response triggered by vaccines, he said. This sets it apart from the U.K. variant, which experts believe is unlikely to harm the effectiveness of current vaccines.

“When you have massive uncontrolled replication of a virus as we have right now around the world, then you’re going to see these mutations,” Evans said.

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“If that mutation makes the virus either more able to infect people or resist being undone by an immune response, then that’s the virus that will predominate. It’s the old survival of the fittest concept.”

Read more: Canada ‘actively monitoring’ new coronavirus variants

Will it affect vaccines?

Experts say there is a chance, to some extent.

Vaccines currently approved to fight COVID-19 are designed around the spike protein, Evans said, so multiple significant mutations to that part of the virus could pose a problem.

However, much is still unknown about this new variant. Researchers in South Africa and elsewhere are investigating the variant and its possible behaviours, but little is definitive. Scientists in the U.K. expressed concern about it on Monday, though Public Health England said there was currently no evidence to suggest the vaccines would be rendered useless against the variant. The World Health Organization echoed that on Tuesday.

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In the worst-case scenario, the technology that helped build these vaccines with accuracy and speed will also help us combat a new virus variant, Evans said.

“The silver lining in this black cloud is that you can code for this particular protein in the vaccine,” he said.

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“With mRNA vaccines, you can take that template — which is what you’re injected with — and remake it. You plug in these mutational changes into the mRNA sequence, change it, put it in your vaccine and you’re off to the races.”

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Scientists at BioNTech and the University of Oxford have both said they are testing the vaccines against the new variants. BioNTech has said its vaccine developed with Pfizer is “relatively likely” to work on the U.K. variant.

They say they could make any required tweaks in around six weeks.

“That’s very, very quick compared to our old vaccine technologies,” Evans said.

How far has it spread?

At this point, it’s centred in South Africa. It is already considered the dominant virus variant in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces, where it’s believed to have originated.

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However, handfuls of cases have popped up in other countries, including Austria, Finland, Japan, Norway, and Switzerland.

Read more: COVID-19 mutations unlikely to impact vaccine, experts say

Canada has not detected anyone with the variant, though experts say it’s inevitable that it will.

In fact, it’s hard to know definitively if this particular variant — and others — aren’t already prevalent in Canada, Evans said. That’s because “we haven’t done much genomic analysis as the U.K. and other countries have,” he said.

“People are saying, ‘Well, we haven’t seen them in Canada,’ but they’re probably out there.”

Canada already has at least nine cases of the virus variant first found in the U.K. — many of them considered “travel-related.” In response, the federal government suspended flights from the U.K. to Canada until at least Jan. 6, 2021.

Additionally, all travellers who have been in Britain or South Africa who want to return to Canada will be subject to “secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans.”

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What else do experts say?

The origins of this particular variant also signal some concern, Evans said.

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In South Africa’s Cape province, it arose in heavily populated regions where COVID-19 infections were already aplenty, according to the first paper (pre-publication) documenting the variant.

A similar scenario unfolded with the variant in England. It proliferated in a southern part of the country, around London, with boroughs and densely populated areas. This isn’t necessarily proof that the variant can spread faster, according to Evans, but it does speak to the type of environments that can foster transmission.

Read more: U.K. goes into national lockdown, as COVID-19 variant continues spread

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