The South African Covid-19 variant: What do we know?

Health officials said 11 people – who have no links to travel – have tested positive for the South African Covid-19 variant across England in the last five or six days.

What do we know about this strain of coronavirus and what do these positive cases mean for the country?

– What is the South African variant?

Last month, researchers from South Africa found that the SA variant, known as 501Y.V2, contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity from previous coronavirus infection.

Coronavirus – Mon Jan 25, 2021
Coronavirus – Mon Jan 25, 2021

As part of the study, researchers analysed the impact of specific mutations in the spike gene of the SA variant and found that 501Y.V2 showed “complete escape” from monoclonal antibodies – man-made proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system.

Similar findings were also observed in samples containing convalescent plasma – antibody-rich plasma of someone who has recovered from coronavirus.

– Is it concerning and what is being done to find out more about it?

The South African variant is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence as of yet that it causes more severe disease.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last month that the variant is being tested at the Government’s Porton Down research facility as well as in a clinical trial in South Africa to check the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

In comments from what is reportedly a recording of an online webinar with travel agents, obtained by MailOnline, Mr Hancock said: “There is evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public, but that the South African variant reduces by about 50% the vaccine efficacy.”

It is not yet known whether the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine will be effective against the variant, although other vaccines have shown promising results.

– How much is known about which vaccines work against the SA variant?

The vaccine from Novavax, of which the UK has secured 60 million doses, has been shown to be 89% effective in preventing Covid-19.

Data from more than 20,000 people, including a trial in South Africa, has now been reported.

In the South African arm of the trial, where most cases of Covid-19 were the South African strain, the jab was 60% effective in preventing mild, moderate and severe coronavirus among those without HIV.

Novavax plans to immediately begin development on a vaccine which specifically targets the SA variant.

A vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm Janssen is 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe Covid-19 28 days after vaccination.

HEALTH Coronavirus Valneva
HEALTH Coronavirus Valneva

The jab worked across multiple variants of coronavirus, including the South African variant.

The level of protection against moderate to severe Covid-19 infection was found to be 72% in the United States arm of the trial, 66% in the Latin American arm and 57% in the South African arm.

Meanwhile, Pfizer said it had tested 16 different mutations in the variants and none had any significant impact on how its vaccine worked.

And Moderna said laboratory tests found that vaccination with its jab produced neutralising antibodies against all key emerging variants, including the South African mutation.

– What has happened with the SA variant in England and is it now spreading in the community?

Experts are seeking to urgently test 80,000 people for Covid-19 after it emerged that the South African strain may have spread in some regions of England.

Health officials said 11 people had been identified who have tested positive for the variant, but who have no links to travel.

This suggests there may small pockets of spread in local communities of the new variant, with the possibility of further cases.

Experts from Public Health England (PHE) are now hoping to break any chains of transmission.

To date, 105 cases of the South African variant have been identified in the UK since December 22 but all of those had links to travel.

Experts advising the Government said they did not think the current vaccines would need to be tweaked to deal with any spread of the South African variant.

– Where will the testing take place?

Mobile testing units are being sent into the affected areas of London, the West Midlands, east of England, South East and the North West.

The areas are: Hanwell, west London; Tottenham, north London; Mitcham, south London; Walsall in the West Midlands; Broxbourne, Hertfordshire; Maidstone, Kent; Woking, Surrey; and Southport, Merseyside.

– What has the Prime Minister said?

During a visit to the Al Hikmah vaccination centre in Batley, West Yorkshire, on Monday, Boris Johnson told reporters: “We are confident that all the vaccines that we are using provide a high degree of immunity and protection against all variants.”

He said the vaccines could be adapted to deal with new variants if necessary.