The battle against the coronavirus pandemic looks increasingly like a game of cat and mouse between vaccine rollout and the virus’s mutation. After a highly infectious COVID-19 variant was found in the U.K. right before Christmas, another deadly strain of the coronavirus emerged in South Africa, leading some public health experts to worry that it could be an even bigger threat than the U.K. variant.
“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant,” Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC’s Today program on Monday. As a result, the British government has suspended all flights from South Africa. “This is a very, very significant problem… and it’s even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant,” Hancock added.
Like the U.K. variant, the new strain discovered in South Africa, officially called 501Y.V2, involves multiple mutations inside the coronavirus at the same time.
“They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” John Bell, a medicine professor at Oxford University, explained in Britain’s Times Radio on Sunday. “The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the (virus’ spike) protein.”
South Africa has reported more than 1.1 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 30,000 deaths. The new strain has been found spreading rapidly in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Scientists are still unsure whether existing vaccines are effective against these new mutations. While a related study is underway, Bell said his gut feeling was that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines would still be effective against the U.K. strain, but he was less certain about the one identified in South Africa.
Some scientists argue it’s too early to call the South African strain more deadly than the British variant, or vice versa. To say the South African strain is more problematic is “politics rather than science” at this point, said Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, per Bloomberg.
“Vaccine efficacy is clearly one of the big questions that arises from discovering these new variables, and we understand everybody wants answers immediately,” Lessells added. “But it takes a little bit of time to get the answers.”
The South African variant was first detected on December 18. Preliminary studies suggest the variant is associated with “a higher viral load, which may suggest potential for increased transmissibility,” according to the World Health Organization. As of December 30, the variant had been reported in four other countries.