Africa-Press – Namibia. THE discovery of two new variants of the novel coronavirus in the United Kingdom and South Africa has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccines already developed to fight the virus.
Windhoek-based infectious disease specialist Dr Gordon Cupido says this question remains unanswered.The 501.V2 variant, which was first discovered in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, is highly infectious and takes less time to spread.South Africa saw a spike in cases from an average of 2 000 cases daily in November to over 18 000 in December.The 501.V2 variant, identified last month, is said to have multiple mutations compared to the variant discovered in the UK, which was first identified in Kent, in the south-east of England, in December.Scientists are yet to say whether the available vaccines can tackle the new variant. Cupido says there is evidence that mutations of this particular spike protein could create problems because vaccines are developed based on the specific spike protein of a virus.The spike protein is the basis of the current Covid-19 vaccines, which seek to generate an immune response to it.“Scientists are now doing more specific tests looking at the antibodies which are produced with the vaccine, and seeing if it neutralises the attachments to the spike protein and if it stops infections to the cell in the laboratory,” he says.The results of these tests will be available in the next six weeks. Cupido says scientists have indicated that if the results show the vaccines are not effective, they will be modified.“The issue is the removal of millions of doses of the old vaccine if they developed it, but they must first develop it, then produce it en masse, transport it and revaccinate. They are very confident though that this will not be the case,” he says.501.V2 VARIANTThe new variant is more infectious than the old version, because it takes less time to spread and this has been evident among young people.Cupido says the younger segment of the population is more susceptible to infection with the new variant than older people.He says this also means a person can stay Covid-19-positive for longer, and it takes less time to transmit the virus from one person to another.SYMPTOMSCupido says there is no way to distinguish between the symptoms of the 501.V2 variant and the ‘older’ variant, because observation and studies have just started.“This variant was discovered only a few weeks ago, and to be able to make those distinctions would require observing many patients and recording symptoms of many people over a period of time,” Cupido says.Symptoms associated with the new variant include diarrhoea, stomach ache and nausea. The centres for Disease Control and Prevention indicated there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death.NAMIBIA AND THE NEW STRAINCupido agrees with minister of health and social services Kalumbi Shangula that the new variant is probably already present in Namibia. He says it is impossible, however, to say this with certainty.The health ministry recently noted a higher infection rate in people between the ages of 20 and 49.Cupido attributes this trend to social behaviour. “The congregation in groups and the activities [of the young people] are where they are more exposed to the virus over a longer period of time,” he says.He says the high incidence of travelling between Namibia and South Africa indicates that the variant is in the country, and extending the period for a valid Covid-19 test for travel purposes does not help to keep it out.