South African Coronavirus Strain Poses Significant Reinfection Risk

Grant Boone
January 22, 2021

There's evidence from several small, and not-yet-peer-reviewed, studies that mutations in the South Africa variant - known as 501Y.V2 and already present in at least 23 countries - may have a higher risk of Covid-19 reinfection in people who've already been sick and still should have some immunity to the disease. Also Read - Is reinfection of coronavirus a reality?

But perhaps most alarming is the prospect that the mutations in the variant could limit the effectiveness of existing vaccines, one of the best tools we have for controlling the pandemic.

How Does This New Variant Infect Human Cells?

"The blood samples from half the people we tested showed that all neutralizing activity was lost". The antibodies produced by these cells are more potent than the patients' original antibodies and may be more resistant to mutations in the spike protein the virus uses to break into cells, they said. "This makes it very unlikely that the United Kingdom variant will escape from the protection provided by the vaccine", said Jonathan Stoye, a virus scientist at Britain's Francis Crick Institute who was not involved in the research.

It also "shows substantial or complete escape from neutralizing antibodies" in blood donated by COVID-19 survivors, according to the study published on the open access preprint website bioRxiv. Even if antibody levels fall, B cells will remember how to make them when necessary, according to study leader Michel Nussenzweig of Rockefeller University, whose findings were reported on Monday in Nature. Are You At Risk?

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"This may reduce some efficacy from S-protein-based vaccine-induced antibodies in some people", Tang said.

"The study also acknowledges that it can not assess the impact of this virus variant on T-cell responses so some additional defense will arise from this, as well as other naturally existing innate components of the immune system in those infected in addition to any residual vaccine protection", Tang said.

"Convalescent serum studies suggest natural antibodies are less effective", Abdool Karim said, introducing the research, "(but) current data suggest the new variant is not more severe". South Africa's new variant: What is it?

Speaking to the media, the authors said that it is important for everyone right now to determine the neutralising ability of the antibodies against virus variants generated in response to vaccination and study the immune response in individuals infected with the same.

Earlier, South African researchers said that since vaccines induce a broad immune response it was unlikely that the mutations in the spike protein of the variant would completely negate their effect.

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