Should We Be Worried About The New COVID-19 Strain In South Africa?

Here's what to know about the coronavirus variant, including how it affects the pandemic and the vaccine.
There's a new dominant strain of COVID-19 in South Africa, and there's a lot you should know before you panic.
There's a new dominant strain of COVID-19 in South Africa, and there's a lot you should know before you panic.

Another new coronavirus strain has been identified in South Africa, just a few weeks after health officials discovered a more infectious strain shooting across the United Kingdom. The new variant, known as the B.1.351 lineage, has quickly become the dominant strain in South Africa, driving a rapid increase in infections up and down the coast.

Some experts are concerned the variant could be even more dangerous than the strain found in the U.K. Both strains are thought to be more infectious than the previously dominant strain going around, but there’s also concern the B.1.351 variant could wind up being resistant to the vaccines.

Before you panic: It appears the vaccines we currently have on the market offer some level of efficacy against the strain; others currently in trials are showing less efficacy against the variant. That said, scientists predicted this would happen to some degree and they could tweak the vaccines to effectively work against new variants.

Here’s what to know about the new strain identified in South Africa:

What’s different about this COVID-19 variant?

The new strain has multiple different mutations, one of which involves the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to cells.

Any change to the spike protein raises a little red flag to scientists. The spike protein’s main job is to glue itself to our cells so the virus can start replicating itself over and over again to create an infection.

If the spike protein mutates in a way that makes it more efficient at binding to our cells, the consequences are clear: More people will become infected.

“There was a favorable mutation and it looks like it can get transmitted more easily. That’s good for the virus, and if we let things go naturally, that strain could become our dominant strain,” said Bradley Pollock, the associate dean for public health sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

What impact do the mutations have?

Health officials are pretty confident that the variant is more transmissible than previous strains, as it’s recently been dominating infections in South Africa. Same goes with the strain in the U.K., which has a similar mutation within the spike protein making it more infectious.

We need more data to confirm this is the case, but there’s enough evidence to suggest the strain infects people more efficiently, according to Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert. It doesn’t appear to be any deadlier or more severe than the previous strains.

Still, greater infectivity means more cases, and inevitably, more hospitalizations and deaths.

The other big question is whether this particular variant could be resistant to vaccines. After all, the spike protein is what the vaccines are designed to recognize and go after.

Some health experts worry a change to the spike protein could render vaccines useless. But most experts say that’s probably not the case and the vaccines will offer some level of protection.

“There’s no real basis to say it’s going to escape or evade the vaccine.”

- Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

“There’s no real basis to say it’s going to escape or evade the vaccine,” Adalja said. Right now, there’s no evidence to suggest that’ll happen.

Adalja says the variant won’t have any impact on the accuracy of our diagnostic tests, antibody tests or treatments.

But what if it could resist the vaccines?

That probably wouldn’t be a major dilemma, Pollock said.

First of all, if a mutation occurs to the spike protein (as it has), and if you’ve been vaccinated and have protective antibodies, your body will still have a strong chance of beating the virus.

“Even if there is a little tiny mutation that occurs, the fact is you’re going to develop immunity and antibody response that will knock the virus out anyway, even if there was a mutation,” Pollock said.

It’s theoretically possible that a mutation could occur that would diminish the efficacy of the vaccine a bit, but Pollock said scientists could easily adjust the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines — like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — to respond to the mutations.

“You can go in there and very quickly engineer a solution for that,” Pollock said. There may be approval issues and new clinical trials, but tweaking a mRNA vaccine itself is relatively simple.

Is this normal or expected?

Infectious disease experts aren’t surprised to see these new variants. Coronaviruses mutate all the time — most of the time, those little mutations don’t make a difference in the virus’s behavior.

But once in a blue moon, a mutation causes the virus to become more efficient at its job of infecting people and making them sick. “It may be one in a million or one in a billion where you get these sequence shifts [that have an impact]. It doesn’t happen that often,” Pollock said.

We’ve already seen the coronavirus mutate and become more infectious. For example, there was the D614G variant that appeared in Australia and India back in May which was more transmissible.

“There have been mutations happening from day one.”

- Bradley Pollock, associate dean for public health sciences at the UC Davis School of Medicine

“There have been mutations happening from day one,” Pollock said. This isn’t the first time SARS-CoV-2 will mutate, and it won’t be the last. It’s reasonable to assume there are tons of different variants out there that we haven’t identified.

“There likely are variants in every country of some sort, most of them probably don’t have any functional significance, but as we start looking, we’re going to find more and more variants,” Adalja said.

How worried should you be about the new COVID-19 variants?

According to Adalja, you shouldn’t panic. The same level of vigilance encouraged throughout the pandemic still applies.

The new strain isn’t thought to cause a more severe, deadlier disease, and all the precautions we’ve been taking to protect ourselves will work just fine against any new variants that come our way. (Experts do say that it might be worth double masking now, though, just to protect yourself against any strain.)

“It’s the same common sense measures — washing your hands, wearing a face covering, avoiding crowded and congregated places — that will stop the South African variant, stop the U.K. variant, and stop the original virus,” Adalja said.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.