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Explained: Why is South African COVID variant more contagious?

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Even as the world is trying to get back on its feet after a deadly pandemic left more than 2 million of its population dead, the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerging in different countries have been cause of concern for governments and scientists alike.

While three major and infectious variants of the virus have been discovered in United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa so far, the latter known as 20H/501Y.V2 or B.1.351 is being called more contagious than the older variant which triggered the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that the new variants that are more infectious than the original virus, may not allow vaccine and antibodies to work effectively.

Related news: COVID variant may be already present in many countries, says WHO scientist

The South African variant is being called more contagious or around 50 per cent more infectious than the earlier variants, as it has showed multiple mutations, mostly in its spike protein – from where the virus accesses the human body. It is the also the spike protein that vaccines target. A report in The Guardian said that the mutation N501Y makes the South African variant more contagious than the older ones. The mutations E484K and K417N, on the other hand, help the virus escape antibody responses by the body.

The variant which was reported in December 2020 has spread to around 40 countries so far.

The Novavax COVID vaccine trials found that the vaccine was 95.6 per cent effective when applied against the original COVID-19 strain and 85.6 per cent against the UK variant, while it was only 60 per cent effective against the South African variant.

There, however, is no evidence that the South African variant can cause serious illness among the affected.

Related news: South Africa reports new COVID-19 variant

While there is no evidence yet that approved COVID-19 vaccines wouldn’t work on the new variant, a BBC report quoting experts said the vaccines can be redesigned to be applicable to the mutated virus in the worst case scenario.

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