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WHO chief scientist raises concern over South African variant

“Preliminary experiments have shown that monoclonal antibodies that were effective against SARS-CoV2 are less effective against the South Africa variant,” WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | January 9, 2021 4:20:53 am
Covid virus new variant, South African variant, WHO chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, Coronavirus cases, Covid death, Indian express newsWHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan on Friday raised a concern over the South African variant of virus.

“Preliminary experiments have shown that monoclonal antibodies that were effective against SARS-CoV2 are less effective against the South Africa variant,” Dr Swaminathan said.

A new variant of the coronavirus is driving a second wave of infections in South Africa. The variant has spread to other countries in Africa and Europe and concerns have been raised over how it will respond to Covid-19 vaccines. South Africa named the variant 501Y.V2 because of the N501Y mutation they found in the spike protein that the virus uses to gain entry into cells within the body. This mutation was also found in the new strain that the UK notified WHO in December – which is estimated to have been circulating since September.

Experts believe that the UK variant is not likely to affect the efficacy of the vaccines currently being rolled out but there is uncertainty regarding the other South African variant. “The mutations in the spike protein makes this South African variant more of a concern as it less vulnerable to some antibodies,” a new study published in pre-print database bioRxiv has suggested.

Dr Swaminathan said the serum of persons who have been administered the Covid vaccine is now being tested in labs in the UK and South Africa to check whether it can neutralise the South African strain. “WHO is bringing virologists and laboratory experts, our virus evolution working group and developers of vaccines together on January 12 to outline important research questions related to viral variants,” Dr Swaminathan said.

India on Friday reported a total of 82 persons with new UK mutant strain and presently there are no reports on the South African mutant. According to Dr Swaminathan, all viruses mutate and variants are bound to arise especially when there is increased transmission in the population.

“Genomic surveillance is a good approach to track virus evolution and along with clinical and epidemiologic data, can inform countries about the spread of the virus and implications for control measures, therapeutics and vaccines,” Dr Swaminathan said.

Global scientific collaboration and public genomic sequence databases like GISAID have allowed WHO and partners to track the virus from the beginning. According to the chief scientist, in the next few weeks, more data from experiments will inform us whether these mutations will have any impact on efficacy of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.

Meanwhile, Dr Swaminathan commended the country’s focus on vaccination and inoculating the population against Covid-19. “We cannot presume that there is herd immunity in India and results of the ICMR sero survey will provide new information about the overall antibody prevalence. While there are some pockets in urban high-density areas where we can probably say there is herd immunity, this may not be true for the country as a whole. Still we need to maintain vigilance for some time, till mass vaccination raises the levels of population immunity and transmission in the community slows significantly,” she said.

Till then, the public health and social measures that are known to reduce transmission must be maintained, she added.

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