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South Africa testing amid concerns vaccines won’t work against new COVID variant

British health minister sounds alarm over virus mutation found in South Africa, says ‘it’s even more of a problem’ than the UK variant

Illustrative: Thabisle Khlatshwayo receives her second shot at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, November 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Illustrative: Thabisle Khlatshwayo receives her second shot at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, November 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Scientists in South Africa were urgently testing to see if the vaccines for COVID-19 are effective against the country’s variant virus.

The genomic studies came as Britain’s health minister, Matt Hancock, and other experts in the UK have said they worry that vaccines may not be effective against the South African variant.

“This is the most pressing question facing us right now,” said Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is working on the country’s genomic studies of the variant.

“We are urgently doing experiments in the laboratory to test the variant” against the blood of people with antibodies and against the blood of people who have received vaccines, Lessells told The Associated Press Monday.

The tests, called neutralizing assays, will help determine the reliability of vaccines against the variant, he said.

The South African variant, 501.V2, is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in the country’s coastal areas. It is expected that the variant will quickly become dominant inland in Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, and the surrounding Gauteng province, Lessells said.

People pass a sign at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, indicating a COVID testing station, December 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

South Africa is currently experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 with rapidly rising numbers of cases and deaths that are surpassing what the country experienced in its first surge in late July last year.

South Africa has recorded more than 1.1 million cases of COVID-19, including 29,577 deaths, according to Monday figures from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 14.68 new cases per 100,000 people on December 20 to 23.20 new cases per 100,000 people on January 3. The rolling average of daily deaths has doubled over the past two weeks from 0.34 deaths per 100,000 people on December 20 to 0.68 deaths per 100,000 people on January 3.

As South Africa’s hospitals neared capacity, President Cyril Ramaphosa last week announced a return to restrictions designed to slow the spread of the disease, including a ban on the sales of liquor and the closure of many public beaches and banning public gatherings.

The COVID-19 virus is prone to mutations and the creation of new variants, Lessells said.

“As more genomic surveillance is done and better genomic surveillance is done, we will almost certainly see more variants in other parts of the world,” he said.

Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, said Monday he was “incredibly worried” about the South African variant.

Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock attends a remote press conference to update the nation on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, at 10 Downing Street in London, on December 23, 2020. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool/AFP)

“That’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” Hancock told the BBC. “This is a very, very significant problem … and it’s even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

Hancock spoke as the UK began administering the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, adding to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shots it has been giving out since early last month.

John Bell, an Oxford professor, said Sunday he was uncertain whether the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines would be effective against the South African variant, which he said was worrying than the virus mutation in the UK.

“They both have multiple, different mutations in them, so they’re not a single mutation,” he told Times Radio.

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in an interview last week that he believed the vaccine he helped develop would be effective against the UK variant.

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