The more transmissible strain of the corona virus, known as 501Y.V2, has ripped through South Africa resulting in record daily infections and deaths. Several other countries are also trying to contain the outbreak of this new strain. Meanwhile, Professor Penny Moore, leading a domestic research team, conducted a study that found the new strain to be vaccine-resistant in about 50% of cases.
Vaccines from AstraZeneca are set to come online at the end of the month, as South Africa rushes to ensure immunisation for its frontline healthcare workers. The manufacturers behind this particular shot are still researching how the new variant responds to their current vaccine formula, whereas Moderna – a provider that will not be providing vaccines to SA – isn’t unduly worried about the mutation.
In her research, Moore – a virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) – has found that the new variant ‘simply is not recognised’ in roughly 50% of cases. When testing for an immune response, antibodies in the blood failed to detect the virus in its latest form…
“When you test the blood of people infected in the first wave and you ask – ‘Do those antibodies in that blood recognise the new virus?’ – you find that almost 50% of cases, or nearly half of cases, there’s no longer any recognition of the new variant. In the other half of those individuals, however, there is some recognition that remains.
“I should add those are normally people who were incredibly ill, hospitalised, and mounted a very robust response to the virus. It is clear we have a problem. If you have very high antibodies to begin with, there does remain some recognition of the new virus and that’s important as we think about vaccines.”
“Some vaccines elicit very high levels of antibodies and others do not, so we need to understand whether there is some recognition by vaccine-elicited, rather than infection-elicited, antibodies.”
Professor Penny Moore
According to medical experts however, it is essential that we take these developments into context: Viruses mutate all the time, and if 50% of those tested in the study aren’t triggering an immune response, it means that 50% are. We should be encouraged rather than panicked. The sicker you get the first time around, the more likely you are to develop the antibodies to eliminate the virus once more.
Research published by the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory has found that the immune response to the new variant was only ‘reduced slightly’ – but did occur in almost everyone tested. He claims this is ‘nothing to freak out over’.
“These vaccines elicit neutralizing antibodies and appear to be safe and effective. Activity against SARS-CoV-2 variants encoding E484K or 501Y.V2 or the K417N: E484K: N501Y combination was reduced [only] by a small margin. The decrease is seen in just about every individual tested. But it’s not something that we should be horribly freaked out about.”