A new variant (lineage) of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes the coronavirus disease, has been detected in South Africa, scientists have announced.
South Africa’s Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, said the new variant, known as 501.V2, is fueling the ongoing second wave of Covid-19 infections in the country. Sars-CoV-2, like all viruses, mutates with time.
Between March and September 2020, the virus has mutated several times across the world. A mutated virus instinctively sounds scary, but mutation is common in viruses.
Most of the time, the tweak can be meaningless while in others cases, it can make the virus worse by making it spread faster or cause severe disease.
Never seen before
From late September, scientists say the virus has accumulated several mutations not previously seen in South Africa.
Through his Twitter account, Dr Mkhize said clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture, particularly noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness.
“The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,” Dr Mkhize told a virtual briefing on Friday.
The group of mutated viruses of Sars-CoV-2 was discovered in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces by Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA).
The genomics team noted that this lineage possesses between 10 and 20 mutations not previously seen in viruses from South Africa prior to September.
The spike protein is the focus of most Covid-19 vaccines as it is the part of the virus that enables it to enter human cells.
Mutations to the spike protein lead to questions about the vaccine because the three leading jabs - Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford - all train the immune system to attack the spike.
However, virus replication only happens inside cells, so blocking entry prevents more viruses from being made. That is why health officials remain convinced the vaccine will work against this variant.
As of Friday, South Africa had recorded 892,813 known cases of Covid-19 and 24,000 known deaths, with a further 184 infected people dying in the last 24 hours.
All provinces hit
South African epidemiologist and chair of the country's Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, noted that whereas the second wave is showing early signs that it is spreading faster than the first wave, it is not clear if it has more or fewer deaths.
“The rate of increase in cases is similar to the first wave but the second wave has overshot the peak of the first wave," said Prof Abdool Karim, who is also director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa.
"The second wave has now hit all provinces with some early signs of spreading faster than the first wave."
He added that scientists do not know where the new variant originated but that the country is seeing a much higher proportion than the rest of the world.
“What we know is that we first found it in Nelson Mandela Bay.”