When the first batch of AstraZeneca’s Kovid-19 vaccine arrived in South Africa this month, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the consignment as “turning the tide” against the virus.
But the growth of a dangerous version of the coronavirus has thrown the country’s response into disarray, and raised fears around the world that mutant strains would potentially render the current generation of vaccines ineffective.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said, “What we’re going to see is a cat and mouse game between virus makers and then vaccine manufacturers to change their vaccines as soon as possible.”
“So the lesson is that we need to keep the numbers down so that we don’t see more and more variants emerging, which makes it harder to vaccinate against.”
Read and watch this story on NBCNews.com On assignment with Richard Engel, “Kovid Mutants,” Sunday, February 21 at 10 pm ET on MSNBC.
The first signs of trouble came in October, when doctors noticed an alarming increase in the number of cases, particularly around Nelson Mandela Bay, the eastern end of the picturesque stretch of South Africa’s coastline known as the “garden route” .
“Within five weeks, scientists had identified a variant with its spike protein disturbing mutation, the part of the virus that enables it to enter human cells. Current Kovid-19TKs target the spike protein , But mutations may make the antibodies produced by the vaccine less effective. Mutations can also occur to those who previously had coronoviruses that were more susceptible to re-infection.
“Those who were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 and who had prepared antibodies for that virus, those antibodies can no longer recognize this new version of the virus due to changes in spike proteins,” Richard Lesels, a lead geneticist Researcher at the sequencing laboratory, KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, which identified the variant.
“What this means is that it is possible that this version will be able to rein in people, and may contribute to how it is again spreading more efficiently through the population.”
South Africa is the toughest country in the continent to suffer through the first wave of coronovirus, which reached its peak in July, midwinter in the southern hemisphere. The government banned strict lockdown measures, closing borders, enforcing curfews and even liquor sales to prevent “reckless behavior”.
By the end of September, cases had subsided and the government announced the reopening of the country for tourists and business travelers, easing lockdown restrictions. This freedom gave the new version of the virus the space it needed to spread, however, intensifying a second wave that hit harder and faster than before.
More than 48,000 South Africans have died from coronovirus, and the South African variant has been detected in more than 40 countries, including the United States.
Health experts have warned that global vaccination efforts need to be pursued to prevent more vaccination, and to prevent more changes from occurring. Another strain that originated independently in Brazil has shown the same mutation as the South African strain, which already has the same ability to rein in people with Kovid-19.
President Joe Biden last month signed travel restrictions to ban travelers arriving from South Africa, so as to control the spread of the variant. But the number of cases is still high in other countries, and as the third and fourth waves are likely to arrive, the virus may continue to mutate and resist currently available vaccines.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a health charity, said, “We are in the race to get the virus out, to reduce transmission, to make everyone in the world aware of the ways of this virus before getting vaccinated.” in the United Kingdom.
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The mutation has dealt a severe blow to South Africa’s vaccine plans. A study of about 2,000 people indicated that the AstraZeneca vaccine is far less effective than the newer variants, with people only 22 percent better than a placebo. The findings prompted the government of South Africa to halt the rollout of the vaccine, which was scheduled to begin on 8 February.
Instead, the government swiftly switched gears to focus on another vaccine: a single-dose shot developed by Jason & Johnson that was more extensively tested in South Africa and showed better results against the new version. The rollout began on Wednesday as part of an “implementation study” with health staff that will monitor its effectiveness. Ramaphosa was also shot.
South Africa was left with the challenge of what to do with the tens of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that had already arrived in the country and scheduled to expire at the end of April.
Health Minister Zweli Makhije announced this week that the government had offered unused doses to the African Union to distribute to other countries that the African Union has not been hit hard by the South African version, stating that “There will be no wasted and wasteful expenditure. “
The government said it had also made deals for the Pfizer vaccine, although a new laboratory study also cast doubt on the effectiveness of that shot against the South African version, which could cause further headaches for the country.
Meanwhile, the Oxford University group worked with AstraZeneca to develop their vaccine and said it was going to start working on a new version designed to recognize the new version. The scientist who led the development of the vaccine, Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccineology, told the BBC that the revised shot could be ready for a fall.