A healthcare worker uses a pipette to process Covid-19 test samples at the SpiceHealth Genome Sequencing Laboratory set up at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India. Picture: BLOOMBERG/T.NARAYAN
A healthcare worker uses a pipette to process Covid-19 test samples at the SpiceHealth Genome Sequencing Laboratory set up at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India. Picture: BLOOMBERG/T.NARAYAN

Researchers expect to know within weeks whether three of the Covid-19 vaccines tested in SA are effective against the highly contagious Sars-Cov-2 variant driving the country’s surging epidemic, according to a senior scientist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

The variant, known as 501Y.V2 was identified by scientists at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform last year, and has rapidly become the dominant strain circulating in SA. It is driving a huge resurgence in coronavirus infections that began in Eastern and Western Cape late last year, and is now taking off in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. By Wednesday SA had recorded 1.278-million cases, a third of which were identified in the past month.

The variant has been detected in another two dozen countries, ranging from nearby Botswana and Zambia to the UK and Australia.   

Coronavirus mutations are common and generally do not make news headlines. But the 501Y.V2 coronavirus variant has scientists worried because it has several mutations in its spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells. Scientists speculate that these mutations might make it easier for the virus to identify and enter human cells, and may explain its increased transmissibility compared to earlier variants.

The NICD had so far received blood samples from participants in vaccine trials conducted in SA by Johnson and Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Novavax, said NICD and Wits associate professor Penny Moore.

Researchers who extracted antibodies from the blood samples were comparing the potency of these antibodies against 501. V2 to older variants of the virus. “We expect to have results within the next few weeks,” said Moore.

Similar work is under way in the UK to determine whether vaccines remain effective against the new B117 variant driving its surging epidemic, which was detected in December.

The stakes are particularly high for the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, as 1-million doses are due to arrive in SA in late January, in the first part of a deal brokered by the government with the Serum Institute of India.

But there is also keen interest in the J & vaccine, as it is expected to finalise its phase three trial by the end of next week, and local pharmaceutical manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has an agreement to fill and package vials of the vaccine at its site in Port Elizabeth. The company declined to answer Business Day’s questions about production delays reported earlier this week by the New York Times, saying only that it was confident in its ability to meet the supply agreements signed with governments.

Francesca Mutapi, a professor in global health infection and immunity at the University of Edinburgh, said she was optimistic that vaccines would be effective against Sars-Cov-2, regardless of the emerging mutations. “The good news is there is more than one vaccine out there, and they are not all directed at a single target.  If you have a variant of the virus that has a few mutations on the spike protein, other regions can still be recognised by your immune response. It might be a slightly dampened response, but it won’t be obliterated,” she said.

CORRECTION: 16 January 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 100-million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine shot are due to arrive late January, it should have said 1-million shots are due to arrive. This has been corrected.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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