The world could be facing a protracted and complex health crisis after the SARS-CoV-2 virus is said to be mutating to a more severe strain.
Scientists have announced that the new variant in the lineage of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes the coronavirus disease, has been detected in South Africa.
The new pronouncement comes days after the United Kingdom reported similar development and enforced a lockdown.
South Africa’s Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize said the new variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, was fuelling the ongoing second wave of Covid-19 infections in the southern country. Sars-CoV-2, like all viruses, mutates with time.
Through his Twitter account, Dr Mkhize said clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture, particularly noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness.
“The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that that the second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,” Mkhize said during a virtual briefing on Friday.
South Africa’s epidemiologist and chair of its Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, noted that whereas the second wave is showing early signs that it is spreading faster than the first wave, it is not clear if this second wave has more or fewer deaths.
“What we are seeing now is that the rate of increase in cases is similar to the first wave but the second wave has now overshot the peak of the first wave,” said Prof Abdool Karim who is also director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa.
“The second wave has now hit all provinces with some early signs of it spreading faster than the first wave.”
He also added that scientists do not know where the new variant originated but that the country was seeing a much higher proportion than the rest of the world.
“What we do know is that we first found it in Nelson Mandela Bay.”
Between March and September 2020, the virus has mutated several times across the world.
However, from late September, scientists say the virus has accumulated several mutations that have not previously been seen in South Africa.
The group of mutated viruses, of Sars-CoV-2, was discovered in Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces by Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA).
The genomics team noted that this lineage possesses between 10-20 mutations that were not previously seen in viruses from South Africa prior to September.
The spike protein is the focus of most Covid-19 vaccines as it is the part of the virus that enables it to enter human cells.
Mutations to the spike protein led to questions about the vaccine because the three leading jabs – Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford – all train the immune system to attack the spike.
In Kenya, the trial phase of the vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is being conducted by the KEMRI-Welcome Trust Research program based in Kilifi.
KEMRI’s Dr. Samuel Sang said that researchers are trying to determine if the vaccine, known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, is safe for Kenyans.
“Vaccines which have been found to work and are safe in one population [may not] work across populations,” Sang said. Therefore, he said, there’s a need to assess whether the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 is safe and works among the Kenyan volunteers.
The ministry of Health announced that Kenya is set to receive the first consignment of COVID-19 vaccine in January 2021.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said Kenya has ordered 24 million doses of the vaccine as the government also explores ways of partnering with Chinese organisations that have developed COVID-19 jabs.
He said the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine is far cheaper and is easier to store compared to the others.
“The Ministry and the Kenya Medical Research Institute are carrying out tests. The Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored in an ordinary fridge unlike the Pfizer one which has to be kept in extremely cold temperatures of 70 degrees Celsius,” Kagwe said.