Picture: 123RF/SERGY CHAYKO
Picture: 123RF/SERGY CHAYKO

Berlin/London — The new coronavirus strain that emerged in SA is even more problematic than a mutated form that prompted new lockdowns across much of the UK, health authorities in that country said on Monday.

“I’m incredibly worried about the SA variant,” UK health secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC radio Monday, citing a conversation over the Christmas holiday with his counterpart in SA. “One of the reasons they know they’ve got a problem is because, like us, they have an excellent genomic scientific capability to be able to study the details of the virus. And it is even more of a problem than the new UK variant.”

The SA variant is driving a surge of infections in the country and, like the UK strain, it appears to be more infectious than previous mutations. Still, there’s no evidence yet that the Covid-19 vaccines approved so far won’t work against the new strains.

“Shots will probably still be effective against the UK variant of the coronavirus, while questions surrounding the SA version remain, John Bell, an Oxford professor working with the UK government on its vaccine programme”, told Times Radio on Sunday. It’s unlikely the mutations would “turn off” the effective vaccines entirely, Bell said.

“We’ve got a bit of headroom because the vaccines work, I think, much better than any of us thought they would work,” he said. “We do have some room to manoeuvre. If they worked 20% less well because of a mutation we’d still have good vaccines.”

‘Cat and mouse’

Even if the new variants were able to evade the vaccines “it’s perfectly possible” to adapt and make new ones, potentially within six weeks, if necessary, Bell said. “We’re now in a game of cat and mouse. These are not the only two variants we’re going to see.”

People under the age of 20 may also be more affected by the new UK variant, Imperial College London researchers said in a preliminary analysis published on December 31. It’s too soon to be able to say why this might be the case, and the results might have been influenced by the fact that the lockdown was keeping more adults home, but schools were open, they said.

SA medical scientists are designing studies to ascertain the clinical impact of the new variant of the coronavirus, said Glenda Gray, president of the SA Medical Research Council.

SA doctors have seen anecdotal evidence that more young people without pre-existing conditions are becoming severely ill with the new version, health minister Zweli Mkhize said in December.

There is no evidence that the SA variant is more transmissible or causes more severe disease than the UK variant, Mkhize said in a statement on December 24. The two variants developed independently, and there’s evidence that the UK strain predates the SA one, Mkhize said.

Bloomberg

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