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COVID-19: South African coronavirus variant ‘between 20 and 200%’ more infectious than original
January 28, 2021
The KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform does not exactly trip off the tongue.
That’s probably why the people who work there, along with sister-organisation the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), call it KRISP.
And the researchers at KRISP, led by Professor Tulio de Oliveira, have done some really important work in the last few months.
The identification of the so-called South African variant of COVID-19, a hardy and more infectious strain of coronavirus, was done in a congested KRISP laboratory tucked away on the ground floor.
It was a difficult moment for members of the team to describe – a brilliant piece of detective work that revealed a dangerous new episode in the pandemic.
Professor de Oliveira told me how it happened. “We got very busy in the middle and end of November,” he explained.
Clinical staff at one of main hospitals in Nelson Mandela Bay were seeing a very unusual increase of new cases.
“They were convinced that there was probably something different about the virus so we answered their call very quickly,” Prof de Oliveira added.
By extracting the genetic material from the variant, which they call 501YV2, and tracking the way it was spreading around the country, the team at KRISP was able to determine that it was anywhere between 20 to 200% more infectious that the original.
In an equally disturbing finding, their partners at AHRI discovered that antibodies developed by people in response to the original strain of COVID-19 are “much less able” to neutralise the South African variant.
It raises the prospect that people who have already had coronavirus could get it again.
Prof de Oliveira told me that his team had seen “multiple samples” of this viral re-infection.
The genomic surveillance performed at KRISP has been utilised in neighbouring states, with the South African variant identified in countries including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Malawi.
“In Zambia, the last 23 genomes that have been done, 22 of those were the 501YV2 variant,” the professor said.
“We have just finished analysing samples from Mozambique and informed the minister of health about the lineages that are circulating in the country. I believe today he will go to the public to announce (the results).”
Prof de Oliveira would not give me advance notice of their findings but it seems inevitable that 501YV2 has indeed been identified in Mozambique.
This research will concern people – and politicians – right across the continent.
South Africa, which boasts relatively modern infrastructure, has struggled to deal with this now dominant variant of COVID-19.
At the peak of the country’s second wave in early January, more than 20,000 people were being infected every day.
Hospitals and clinics faced chronic shortages of staff, beds and critical supplies like oxygen.
In other parts of Africa, people are largely on their own.
I asked KRISP’s Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist, whether the institute has pushed a proverbial alarm bell by identifying the variant and describing many of its characteristics.
“Yes, we are certainly trying to push the alarm bell and trying to make this point that we need help,” he said.
“We need help in South Africa (and) in the region and we need people to understand that this is a global pandemic and that if we leave Africa and African countries to try and deal with this themselves we are going to have a big problem.”