South African Covid Strain Raises Growing Alarm in the U.K.

The new coronavirus strain that emerged in South Africa is even more problematic than a mutated form that prompted new lockdowns across much of the U.K., health authorities said on Monday.

“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant,” U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC radio Monday, citing a conversation over the Christmas holiday with his counterpart in South Africa. “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 U.K. new variant.”

The South African variant is driving a surge of infections in the country, and like the U.K. 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.

To say the South African strain is more problematic than the U.K. variant is “politics rather than science” at this point, said Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Researchers must first do the experiments necessary to understand the new variants, he said. So far, officials have provided little evidence to support the idea that the South African strain is more problematic than the new one first identified in the U.K., where cases are also surging.

“Vaccine efficacy is clearly one of the big questions that arises from discovering these new variables, and we understand everybody wants answers immediately,” Lessells said. “But it takes a little bit of time to get the answers.”

Shots will probably still be effective against the U.K. variant of the coronavirus, while questions surrounding the South African version remain, John Bell, an Oxford professor working with the U.K. government on its vaccine program, 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 maneuver. 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.”

Young people under the age of 20 may also be more affected by the new U.K. variant, Imperial College London researchers said in a preliminary analysis published Dec. 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.

South African medical scientists are designing studies to ascertain the clinical impact of the new variant of the coronavirus found in that country, said Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council.

South African 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 last month.

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

Initial research indicates that the South African variant may be linked with a higher viral load than the viruses that had previously circulated in the area, according to the World Health Organization, though this is still being investigated. As of Dec. 30, the variant had been reported in four other countries. The U.K. variant has been found more widely, with reports spanning 31 other countries, territories and areas across the world.

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