Over a year since the original cases of COVID-19 were recognized in China, South Africa finds itself facing a second, more severe wave of infections. In focus is the new ‘501Y.V2’ variant of the virus that emerged in South Africa in December and was quickly found to be the dominant type in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal. Across the globe in the United Kingdom another significant variant, different to the South African type was also discovered. Why are we finding different types of the virus and what does this mean?
Viruses are tiny particles of genetic material covered by a protein coat which is sometimes enveloped by a fatty film. Viruses can only replicate using the machinery of an infected cell within a living organism. During the replication process tiny changes in the virus’s genetic material occur and these are known as mutations. Viral mutations are expected and are seen every year in seasonal influenza. Some mutations are helpful to the virus’s ability to spread and avoid the host’s immune system, whilst other mutations are not. Many mutations have occurred in the SARS-COV2 and thus many different variants have been identified across the globe.
When is a variant of a virus important?
Most mutations that occur cause small or insignificant changes to the way the virus looks. However, certain mutations at critical areas may cause a larger change that increases the virus’s transmissibility and ability to resist an immune response by the host. Additionally, a number of small mutations may accumulate over time producing a major change. These altered versions are new strains/ variants of the virus and may become the dominant type in a community through a process of natural selection.
The importance of the South African Variant
The mutations that have resulted in the South African variant are important as they have resulted in changes to the part of the protein that helps the virus to attach and gain entry into the cells of the body. There are concerns that the variant is more infectious, generates a higher load of viral copies in those who it infects and that it may cause re-infections. At present more research is necessary to confirm this.
The start to 2021 has been filled with new challenges and concerns. However, 2020 has taught us that knowledge is a powerful tool. We thank the scientists and researchers who were able to identify the new variant in South Africa and who are working around the clock to understand its implications on the pandemic.
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