South African Covid variant can evade antibodies to reinfect, tests show

·3-min read

The South African variant of the coronavirus has caused an “amazing and terrifying” infection spike in the country already hardest hit by the virus in Africa, according to

The United States this week joined countries in slamming their doors on travellers from South Africa, which has itself closed its land borders and tightened lockdown regulations.

But the variant known has N501 Y V2 has already been detected in 32 countries. They include neighbours Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi where expatriate workers in South Africa took the virus home when they went to celebrate the festive season with families.

South Africa has not received a vaccine to start an immunisation programme and is unlikely to do so before the second quarter of 2021.

So far, the country has recorded 1,437,798 cases of Covid-19, with 43,105 fatalities.

Doctors this week made the encouraging announcement that the American-made Novavax vaccine was 60 percent effective against the South African variant in tests.

But Witwatersrand University Dean of the Faculty of Health Scientists Shabir Modhi, who directed the tests, added that anyone with mild to low antibodies after contracting earlier strains of Covid-19 were prone to reinfection by the variant.

Not deadlier, but more contagious

Medical experts say the variant is not deadlier than the original coronavirus. However it is 50 percent easier to catch.

Dr Richard Lessels of the KwaZulu/Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform says more than 90 percent of the new cases diagnosed in South Africa are the new variant.

“It is amazing and terrifying how quickly it came to dominate. We are in the beginning stages of watching this and other new variants becoming more dominant around the world.”

This is exacerbated by the inequity of availability of vaccine between rich and poor countries.

No-one safe until everyone safe

President Cyril Ramaphosa has joined World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in castigating rich countries for stockpiling vaccines while poor countries go without.

They maintain no-one is safe until everyone is safe.

Ghebreyesus calls it “a crisis of morality”.

California medical specialist Dr Jorge Rodriques puts a more pragmatic spin on failing to vaccinate the global population: “Replication means mutation which means resistance to medication which means variants.”

He notes that the Novavax trials in South Africa showed 60 percent effectiveness against the local variant in healthy patients and 50 percent in HIV positive people who tested.

Hospitals overrun

South African hospitals are overrun by the new wave of infections.

Imtiaz Sooliman of the charity Gift Of The Givers says people are driving six hours to fetch oxygen which is in short supply.

“Some people are dying in their cars while waiting to get into hospital or don’t make it through the casualty wards,” he says.

Specialist Phumla Mayanda says people believing misinformation about the danger of infection in hospitals are attempting treatment at home.

By the time they desperately seek admission, their oxygen levels have decreased fatally.