Professor Salim Abdool Karim,  chairperson of the COVID-19 ministerial advisory committee, says the body’s natural antibodies are less effective against the new variant of the coronavirus that has been identified in South Africa, meaning those who have been infected can be re-infected.

Karim says research into the efficacy of the vaccines against the new variants that have emerged is still ongoing but that they can still prove effective against the variant.

“The vaccine rollout is not going to be easy or quick. It’s a mammoth logistical task that is going to need all hands on deck to vaccinate our healthcare workers, our elderly, our patients with comorbidities amongst others as soon as we can. This virus is spreading about 50% faster, the current data suggests. The new variant is not more severe that natural antibodies are less effective but vaccine antibodies are different and they may or may not be impacted. I’ll wait for the data.”

New variant more infectious

Karim says there is evidence that the new variant of the coronavirus in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, is 50% more infectious as it binds more readily to human cells. However, there is no evidence that it causes a more severe COVID-19 infection.

Professor Karim was part of a panel hosted by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on the latest regarding the new COVID-19 variant.

South Africa is experiencing a second wave of infections fuelled by the new variant.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country has registered over 1.3 million infections and just over 37 000 COVID-19-related fatalities.

“These amino acids which have changed lead to changes in the charge and shape of the protein. The binding of the virus to the human cell had changed significantly, in particular, the virus and the spike protein now rotates about 20 degrees so that it is able to approach more deeply into the binding site so that its affinity and ability to bind into the human cell is now stronger.”

Mkhize visits healthcare facilities in KZN

“The strain with hospitalisation continued to trend upwards showing an 18.3% increase on January 16th to seven days prior. On the 16th January, nearly 18 000 patients were admitted with 2 472 in ICU, 1 117 on ventilators, 5 850 requiring oxygen. This is a significant additional burden to the system and we must salute out healthcare workers.”

Minister Mkhize meets scientists to discuss the new COVID-19 variant: