Don’t call it the ‘SA variant’, scientists and researchers plead

Top researchers say new variant could have begun in any country, and could appear in any country, and labelling it “the South African variant” was unjust and damaging

The new variant spreads 50% faster than its predecessor but is not more severe, researchers say.
Image: 123RF/ktsdesign

A group of South African and international scientists have taken a strong stand against calling 501. V2, the latest variant of SARS-CoV-2 spreading like wildfire across the country, “the South African variant”.

Top researchers, who have delved into the variant for the benefit of all, say that it could have begun in any country, and could appear in any country, and labelling it “the South African variant” just because of the country’s in-depth analysis of the variant, is unjust and damaging.

On Monday night, the ministry of health, led by Dr Zweli Mkhize, hosted a webinar in which top scientists revealed all that we know so far about 501.V2.

According to Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of KZN Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP): “Health ministries across the world have said that South Africa has the worst variant in the world, and they associate our country with the name of the variant. It could easily have emerged elsewhere but it’s only thanks to our excellent genomic surveillance here in South Africa that we know more and more about it.”

Here are some key points made by the team of top scientists:

  • We now know for sure this variant is far more transmissible — it spreads 50% faster than its predecessor that dragged the country through the first wave.
  • Its ability to break into a healthy cell in the human body is because its very structure has changed and that it rotates at 20 degrees allows for a deeper entrance.
  • Every province has been hit by this variant, with some provinces seeing almost double the infections of the first wave.
  • Disease caused by this variant is not more severe than that caused by the first.
  • Within each age group, the probability of dying from Covid-19 is no different to how it was in the first wave. It still differs from one age group to the next, but that has remained the same across both waves.
  • More young people are sick and dying, but simply because the infection numbers are far higher, not because they’re more vulnerable to severe disease and death this time around.
  • What does push the death rate up is when health facilities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Then more people die due to a lack of bed space, ventilators and personnel to tend to patients. In the City of  Cape Town, for example, the risk of dying was 80% higher in weeks when infections peaked.
  • A data set of 6.7 million tests in the country showed that about 4,000 people had been reinfected.
  • The data suggests an immune response to the first variant does not necessarily protect you from the latest one (in a cohort of 50 patients who had been positive, only half were protected from the new variant).
  • Those who had been very ill were more likely to have an immune system that recognised and fought off a possible second infection.
  • There is currently no concern that PCR tests and isolation and quarantine guidelines are affected by the changes in variants.
  • There is no need to halt vaccine development because of the new variant: viruses always mutate and more research is needed but the benefits of current vaccines in development far outweigh the questions that emerge about tweaking the vaccine as the virus shifts.

The team of scientists and clinicians presenting data at the webinar included Prof Salim Abdool Karim, Dr Richard Lessells, Prof Koleka Mlisana, Prof Alex Sigal, Prof Penny Moore, Dr Waasila Jassat, Prof Mary-Ann Davies, Prof Willem Hanekom, and Prof Tulio de Oliveira.

Leave a Reply