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South African strain-a threat to vaccines?

  • Adrija Ray Chaudhury | Team PresentMirror | Updated: Jan. 14, 2021, 11:10 a.m.

A coronavirus variant identified in South Africa has been suggested to be more infectious by initial evidence and reports show more young people getting infected with the new strain. But what really raises our concern is that some scientists are impugned about the capacity of vaccines. They doubt that the South African strand may not be as vulnerable to COVID-19 vaccines as other strains.


Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, mutate all the time. The novel coronavirus developed a significant mutation early in the pandemic, believed to have increased its infectivity. Owing to the new strand, the number of daily cases in South Africa has literally doubled over the past few weeks and has compelled the government to issue more stringent measures in order to curb the virus transmission. Viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, mutate all the time. Emeritus Professor of Virology & former Executive Director, Dr. Barry Schoub said that the new strain is fast displacing the original virus and in some months, it will become the dominant strain. He also added that a second peak in South Africa was anticipated in late January and early February but has come a lot earlier, probably due to the new variant.

Why are experts worried?

Viruses mutate all the time, so it’s no surprise that the coronavirus which emerged in China at the end of 2019 has undergone significant mutations as the virus replicates and spreads.

Even if they aren't reported to be deadlier, being more transmissible means more people can get infected. This could eventually mean more serious infections and more fatalities and chances of further mutations in immunocompromised patients.


Image Credits: The Herald

Questions are now being raised over whether the coronavirus vaccines developed at breakneck speed in the last year, the Western frontrunners being those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and our indigenous vaccines will be effective against significant mutations of the virus, such as the one identified in South Africa. “They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” Oxford University’s John Bell told Times Radio. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the (virus’ spike) protein.”

The variant in South Africa carries two other mutations in the spike protein (E484K and K417N, among others) which are not present in the U.K. strain, named “VOC-202012/01,” with VOC standing for “Variant of Concern.” Experts said the mutations could affect how vaccines against Covid work. Former U.S. FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb said, “The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that it may obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs.”.

Reports from South Africa indicated that the mutation might also impact the severity of the illness, with more young patients seen developing complications. Dr, Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine has claimed that he is very optimistic about the effectiveness of vaccines against the new strand. Nevertheless, he too awaits study results to reach a proper conclusion. He has assured that the vaccines will not hinder working all of a sudden, although the new strand may trigger reduction in efficacy. However, in course of time, the new variant may become successful in obliterating the vaccines and so, researchers and scientists need to step up their activities in order to provide a better solution.

The other side of the coin

As countries scramble to kickstart vaccination programs, or to speed up those already underway, experts noted that one of the biggest potential consequences of emerging variants is their “ability to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity is the most concerning potential consequence of emergent strains, a possibility that health officials aren't considering just because there is no evidence of it occuring till now. Once a large proportion of the population is vaccinated, viruses will be under immune pressure and in order to survive, they will in due course switch to 'escape mutants'.

What are escape mutants?


Image Credits: pLos

When viruses are exposed to antibodies, there is a selection pressure against viruses that possess antigens recognized by the antibodies. As a result, these viruses are targeted by the antibodies and are killed. Nevertheless, for viral mutants that have mutations that change the antigen, they cannot be recognized by the antibodies. Thus, these viral mutants can escape antibodies with a single mutation and survive and replicate at their own sweet will.

CDC has stressed that mass vaccination can favour and accelerate emergence of such variants.

Vaccine manufacturers' take:

Moderna is of the opinion that the vaccines will be effective even against the South African strain and if the vaccines don’t work against one of the new strains, the drug could be adapted. The process would not take a year. BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin said a few weeks ago that the company would need six weeks to modify the vaccine for a new strain. Experts are keen to point out that there’s still a lot they don’t know about the new strains, although the strains are being investigated, and they are urging people not to panic.

Professor Wendy Barclay, Head of Department of Infectious Disease and Chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College London claims that the beauty of the novel technology used in vaccine development is its simplicity and in theory, its adaptability. Hence, there's nothing to be frightened by as of now, if we abilde by the rules and regulations drawn by respective medical boards.


How and where these variants originated is unclear. However, it’s unfair to “blame” countries for mutations, given that they could have originated anywhere but have been discovered by certain countries “looking for them,” i.e. those that conduct advanced surveillance of viruses and thus are likely to find more mutations. And in such a scenario, togetherness is desired to limit the continued organic menace created by the macabre, rapidly-spreading infection.

Pointing fingers will only exacerbate the awful situations. For all we can do-learn to celebrate the survival of the human spirit in the direst circumstances.

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