LONDON: UK scientists have warned that the South African strain of COVID-19 might prove resistant to current vaccines, the Daily Telegraph reported.
It is known to carry three separate mutations, one of which — called N501Y — has also been found in a UK strain known as the Kent variant.
But the South African strain also carries mutations called E484K and K417N, which effect the virus’s spike protein mechanism used to latch on to human cells. This could interfere with how the vaccines target the virus.
“The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition. As such, it helps SARS-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination,” said Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology at University College London.
“It isn’t anticipated that this mutation is sufficient for the South African variant to bypass the protection provided by current vaccines. It’s possible that new variants will affect the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, but we shouldn’t make that assumption yet about the South African one.”
The pandemic has seen the original virus mutate and deviate several times before, sometimes leading to more virulent strains such as the South African and Kent varieties.
Research is ongoing to determine whether these strains are resistant to the new raft of vaccines recently approved worldwide.
“The South African variant has a number (of) additional mutations including changes to some of the virus’s spike proteins, which are concerning,” said Dr. Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.
“They cause more extensive alteration of the spike protein than the changes in the Kent variant, and may make the virus less susceptible to the immune response triggered by the vaccines.”
Like Balloux, though, Clarke urged caution in making judgements before enough evidence is collected.
“While it’s more infectious, it currently remains unclear whether it causes a more severe form of the disease,” he said.
Other experts have called for tougher measures to combat the new strains in light of their increased rates of transmission.
“While changes in the UK variant are unlikely to impact the effectiveness of current vaccines, the accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection,” said Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he is “incredibly worried” by the spread of the South African strain.
His predecessor Jeremy Hunt called the situation “worse” than any he had faced while in government.