As over 50 countries in Asia, Europe, South America, Canada, the Caribbean and the Middle East impose travel bans on the United Kingdom to stop a new Coronavirus variant from spreading, the stock markets plunged. In spite of availability of vaccines, investors were still spooked because the new variant of the virus discovered in Britain can spread faster than any other variants.
The new variant was so infectious that the British government had to impose a Tier-4 lockdown
in London and southeast England. There were fears of food shortage after France shut its borders to U.K. trucks for 48 hours. The English Channel was expecting 10,000 lorries a day travelling between Dover and Calais during the Christmas peak periods.
But European trucks tried to avoid the U.K. for fear of getting stranded during the busy holidays. At London’s Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, departure boards showed cancellations for many European and other destinations. The airport grounded 80 flights on Monday alone. About 200 flights were cancelled across the U.K. as countries around the world avoid it like a plague.
Coronavirus – South Africa Covid-19 New Variant Virus
Since the U.K. lockdown was announced on Saturday, the new variant has also been detected in Denmark, Netherlands and Australia. By Monday, however, the attention has shifted to a country almost 10,000 kilometres away. In South Africa, a different Coronavirus variant has been reported by the WHO (World Health Organization).
The South African variant is deadlier than Britain’s so-called super infectious Covid-19 variant, so much so that the U.K. itself has announced a travel ban – effective on Thursday, December 24 – on anyone who has been in or transited through South Africa in the past 10 days. Two people in the UK who had returned from South Africa had a variant of SARS-CoV-2 from South Africa.
The new virus variant from South Africa – known as “501.V2” – appears to be focused on the south and southeast regions of South Africa. What makes this variant deadlier is that it is more transmissible or infectious than the one detected in the U.K. The South African variant may hit young people – aged 15 to 25 – and may be more resistant to vaccines.
There are also fears that the latest mutations of the Coronavirus virus may be able to “re-infect” individuals who have already caught the virus and recovered. Dr Richard Lessells, one of the specialists studying the new variant in South Africa, said – “Comparing our data with that in the UK, the South African variant is a bit more effective at spreading from person to person and that is not good”.
The South African variant exhibits higher viral loads diagnostic swabs – suggesting it may be more transmissible via aerosols produced during breathing and talking. That could explain why the second wave in the country spread faster than the first wave. After a first wave in South Africa peaked in July and August, the daily total of new cases fell dramatically.
But beginning December, new infections in the country have stunningly reached 11,000 earlier this week. South Africa, a country with a population of almost 60 million, has recorded 954,258 cases of Covid-19 and 25,657 deaths. Scientists and researchers are particularly concerned with the fact that some of the mutations in the variant change the S-protein (spike protein).
Coronavirus – UK and South Africa Covid-19 Cases – April-December 2020 Chart
The spike protein is the basis of current Covid-19 vaccines, which seek to generate an immune response against it. In essence, the spike protein is the key that SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus uses to enter cells. A change of S-protein may allow the virus to bypass antibody drugs. Hence, the new mutations may alter the biochemistry of the spike and could affect how infectious the virus is.
Interestingly, the South Africa’s variant has 3 mutations at key sites in the receptor binding domain (K417N, E484K and N501Y) of the spike gene, according to Prof Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology, Warwick Medical School.
One of the mutations – N501Y – is the same as that found in the U.K. virus variant which had prompted more than 50 countries closing their borders to Britain.
As more studies are being carried out, the new variant of Covid-19 from South Africa is expected to be between 70% and 100% more infections because the Britain’s mutated strain of the virus is already up to 70% more transmissible. While there was no evidence to suggest vaccines would be ineffective against the new variant, at the same time, there was no proof to say vaccines are 100% effective against it.
Besides possessing ability to spread more quickly in humans, the South African variant potentially has the ability to evade detection by specific diagnostic tests, the ability to cause more severe disease, and the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity. The U.S. CDC admits the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity would challenge the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters