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Explained: Is discovery of the South African Covid-19 variant in India a matter of concern?

South Africa variant of Covid-19: What is this new strain and what does this mean for India's efforts to vaccinate its population against the novel coronavirus?

Written by Prabha Raghavan , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 22, 2021 12:36:26 pm
South Africa coronavirus strain, South Africa Covid variant, Africa Covid strain, South Africa news, Covid-19, coronavirus news, covid-19 strains, South Africa strain in IndiaPassengers from the UK fill in forms at Chhtrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. (AP Photo/File)

The government on Tuesday said that four cases of the South African variant of Covid-19 have been detected in the country. What is this variant and what does this mean for the country’s efforts to vaccinate the population against Covid-19?

What is the South African variant?

This is a mutation of the Covid-19 virus that was discovered in South Africa and announced in December. Similar to the UK mutation that India has been dealing with this year, the South African strain (501Y.V2) is more transmissible. However, it also affects the younger population more.

“Clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture- in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no comorbidities presenting with critical illness,” said South Africa’s Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, on December 18.

Unlike the UK variant, there is no evidence to suggest that the South African variant is potentially deadlier.

Are the Covid-19 vaccines currently in use in India effective against this variant?

So far, the government has rolled out two vaccines as part of its campaign against the novel coronavirus — Covishield by Serum Institute of India and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech.

While Bharat Biotech released a pre-print study suggesting that Covaxin was capable of eliciting an immune response against the UK variant, it did not test the vaccine’s effectiveness against the South African variant.

Meanwhile, the South African government has said that the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca-University of Oxford (on which Covishield is based) has“limited” efficacy against this variant. The government has since halted the use of this vaccine, supplied by India. It is switching over to the use of the single dose vaccine candidate developed by Johnson & Johnson, which said in January that the shot provided a level of protection of 57 percent against the South African variant.

Is this a cause for concern?

Right now, this isn’t a major cause for concern in India, as only four cases have been reported by the government. However, if the spread of the South African strain in the country is not contained and this variant becomes dominant, it might make it tougher to protect the population with the vaccines currently available.

At the same time, several Covid-19 vaccine candidates are currently in the pipeline in India and, depending on the results from their trials, they may offer respite against this strain.

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