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South African coronavirus variant in India: What is the risk?

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The pandemic is far from gone, with new coronavirus cases being reported daily. Countries across the world have imposed and reimposed lockdowns to contain the spread of the deadly virus.

As if one wasn’t enough, new coronavirus strains have been reported since December last year across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the newer strains of the virus are more contagious and could render vaccine and antibody protection less effective and thereby, spread rapidly in a short span of time.


Till now, the WHO has identified three new virus variants; UK variant, Brazil, and South African variant, out of which the South African variant appearing to be more vicious than the others.

This variant of SARS-CoV-2, also known as 20H/501Y.V2 or B.1.351, emerged independently in South Africa and was first reported in mid-December. The variant has spread to 44 countries and has multiple mutations. The majority of the cases in South Africa are due to this strain.

It is the key mutation so far that could undermine the effectiveness of vaccines. It has eight key mutations, one of which affects the virus’ spike protein, making it more effective when binding to human cells and therefore, more infectious.

According to scientists, there is no evidence to suggest that the strain is associated with more severe disease or worse outcomes. However, it does appear to spread faster than previous iterations.

Till now, four people in India have tested positive with the South Africa variant of SARS-CoV-2 and one has tested positive for the Brazil variant.

These are four returnees, one from Angola, one from Tanzania and two from South Africa who entered the country in January, ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava said.

All travellers and contacts have been tested and quarantined.

“The ICMR-NIV is attempting to isolate and culture the SA variant strain from the samples of these four individual returnees,” he said.

Will the vaccines work?

AstraZeneca said that it believed its vaccine could protect against the severe disease given that the neutralising antibody activity was equivalent to that of other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated protection against severe disease.

But that was contrary to the recommendation from the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which asked countries to practice caution while using AstraZeneca against the South African variant, suggesting that other shots be prioritized instead.

Apart from the British vaccine, studies have shown that the Pfizer vaccine can be effective against the British and the South African variants. The company is also working on a booster shot that would be tailored against variants. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna say that their mRNA vaccines retain their effectiveness against the South African variants. (With agency inputs)