When the first shipment of the AstraZenecas Covid-19 vaccine arrived in South Africa this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the shipment as a means of turning the tide against the virus.
But the rise of a dangerous variant of the coronavirus has thrown the country’s response to the pandemic into disorder and has raised fears around the world that mutant strains will potentially make current vaccine generation ineffective.
What we will see is a cat and mouse game between changing the virus and vaccine manufacturers who need to quickly change their vaccines, said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.
So the lesson is that we need to keep the numbers low so that we do not see more and more variants appearing, which make it harder to get vaccinated against.
Read more about this story on NBCNews.com and check it out In Assignment with Richard Engel, Covid Mutants, broadcasting on Sunday, February 21, at 10:00 ET on MSNBC.
The first signs of trouble came in October, when doctors noticed a worrying increase in the number of cases, particularly around Nelson Mandela Bay, the eastern edge of the scenic stretch of South Africa’s coastline known as the Garden Road.
Within five weeks, scientists had identified a variant with disturbing mutations in its spicy protein, the part of the virus that enables it to enter human cells. Current Covid-19 vaccines target the spike protein, but mutations may make the antibodies produced by the vaccines less effective. Mutations can also make people who previously had coronavirus more susceptible to re-infection.
People who were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 and who generated antibodies to the virus, those antibodies may no longer recognize this new variant of the virus because of changes in the rivet protein, said Richard Lessells, a lead researcher in genetics laboratory sequence, KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Ranking Platform, who identified the variant.
What this means is that it is possible for this variant to be able to re-infect humans, and this may be contributing to its more efficient spread across the population again.
South Africa has been the worst-hit country on the continent, suffering from a first wave of coronavirus that peaked in July, in the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. The government imposed strict blocking measures, closing borders, enforcing curfews and even banning the sale of alcohol to prevent reckless behavior caused by drinking.
By the end of September, the issues were resolved and the government announced the easing of blocking restrictions, reopening the site to tourists and business travelers. This freedom gave the new version of the virus the space it needed to spread, however, it accelerates a second wave that has hit harder and faster than the first.
More than 48,000 South Africans have died from the coronavirus, and the South African variant has been detected in more than 40 countries, including the United States.
Health experts warn that global vaccination efforts need to be stepped up to prevent more mutations and more variants to emerge. Another species that grew up independently in Brazil has also shown mutations similar to the South African species, with the same potential to re-infect people who already had Covid-19.
President Joe Biden last month signed travel restrictions to ban passengers coming from South Africa, in a bid to control the spread of the variant. But with the number of cases still high in other countries, and the potential for the third and fourth waves to come, the virus can continue to evolve and resist the vaccines currently available.
We are in a race to get ahead of the virus, to reduce transmission, to vaccinate everyone in the world before this virus evolves in ways we can not predict, said Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust, a health charity in the United Kingdom.
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The mutations have posed a serious obstacle to South Africa’s vaccine plans. A study of about 2,000 people showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine is much less effective against the new variant, protecting people only 22 percent better than a placebo. The findings prompted the South African government to halt the spread of the vaccine, which was expected to begin the week of February 8th.
Instead, the government shifted the pace to focus on another vaccine: a single-dose dose developed by Johson & Johnson that was more widely tested in South Africa and showed better results against the new variant. The proliferation began Wednesday with health workers as part of an implementation study that will monitor its effectiveness. Ramaphosa was also shot.
South Africa was then left with the challenge of what to do with the millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that had already arrived in the country and would expire at the end of April.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced this week that the government has offered unused doses to the African Union to distribute to other countries on the continent that have not been hit so hard by the South African variant, saying there would be no spending vain and fruitless.
The government said it had reached agreement on the Pfizer vaccine, though a new laboratory study has also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the shootings against the South African variant, which could cause further headaches for the country.
Meanwhile, the Oxford University team that worked with AstraZeneca to develop its vaccine said it would start working on a new version created to recognize the new variant. The scientist who led the development of the vaccine, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccine, told the BBC that the modified stroke could be ready by autumn.
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