UK scientists and public health officials are said to be extremely worried that a new, highly infectious strain of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa may be resistant to the current generation of vaccines.
Professor John Bell, Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford, who helped develop one of the leading vaccines against the disease, said he is more concerned about the South African mutation than the widely feared strain that emanated from Kent in the UK and triggered major travel restrictions around the globe.
“The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein,” Bell told Times Radio. “My gut feeling is the vaccine will be still effective against the Kent strain. I don’t know about the South African strain – there’s a big question mark about that.”
The vaccines all work by training the body’s immune system in how to fight the coronavirus pathogen, creating antibodies that latch onto its spike proteins (the ‘crown’ from which it derives its name). However, early indications are that the South African strain has structurally different proteins that may spare the virus from the current raft of vaccines being rolled out across the globe.
It is as yet unclear whether this variant leads to more severe cases of Covid-19, but it has already been determined that it is more infectious, potentially casting a grim pall over hopes a partially vaccinated world might ‘open up’ any time soon.
ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston reported that UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is “incredibly worried” that the current arsenal of vaccines might not be capable of handling the South African mutation, citing an unnamed government scientific adviser.
Some cause for optimism, even in the face of this new threat, is that the currently available vaccines have proved far more effective than anticipated and may yet be capable of handling the new strain. Furthermore, Bell added that it’s “perfectly possible” to adjust vaccines in a matter of weeks, if required, saying, “Everybody should stay calm. It’s going to be fine.”
However, he cautioned that the global scientific community is now in what he described as a “cat-and-mouse” game with an ever-evolving, mutating virus, and that the UK and South African variants are extremely unlikely to be the only such variants that require action. At present, the current generation of mutations witnessed across the globe have increased virality, but appear to have much the same rates of severe infection and hospitalization.
The world has adapted a variety of vaccines to tackle mutations against measles, mumps, and rubella in the past, so updating vaccines in the face of a changing threat is far from unprecedented.