D.he name of the coronavirus mutation in South Africa sounds awkward: E484K – because of a change in gluatamate (E) and lysine (K) at prickly protein location 484. But the name is appearing more and more frequently and is becoming increasingly important. Scientists fear that vaccines could be less effective against virus forms with this mutation. It is found in the highly contagious variants that are rampant in South Africa and Brazil – an important difference to the variant in England, against which the Pfizer / Biontech vaccine has been reported to be largely effective.
However, E484K complicates matters. It is apparently able to at least partially escape the immune protection against the entry of the virus into the cell. At least this is the result of a research group coordinated by Rockefeller University in New York.
“Definitely a difference”
The reaction of antibodies in blood samples from 20 people who received either the vaccine from Moderna or Pfizer / Biontech, the South African variant, also called B.1.351 in specialist circles. In some of these samples, the antibodies would have had only a third of the effect against the virus in certain aspects. “It’s a small difference, but definitely a difference,” said the lead scientist in the study, Michel Nussenzweig, to the AP news agency. The reaction of the antibodies is “not equally good” in defending against the virus.
The study was only published on Tuesday, and the peer review is still ongoing. But the recent exponential increase in the number of infections in Brazil and South Africa match the results. In the Amazon metropolis of Manaus, three quarters of the people were infected during the first wave. Despite the assumed herd immunity, there are now more numerous new diseases the health system collapsed.
In South Africa, too, the numbers had skyrocketed since October, although 40 percent of pregnant women and HIV patients had been found to have antibodies against the coronavirus after the peak of the first wave of infections in July. That had also spoken in favor of a certain level of contamination and thus herd immunity. At the beginning of January, more than 20,000 infections were registered daily. A likely explanation: the E484K mutation. Only since then have the numbers been falling again.
According to the AP, scientists pointed out that the study by no means suggests that the vaccines are completely ineffective. “We don’t want people to think that the current vaccine is already out of date. That’s absolutely not true, “said University of Pennsylvania immunologist Edward John Wherry.
He points to the numerous mechanisms by which the vaccine triggers a defensive reaction. There is “immunity anyway” and a “good level of protection”. But the mutation actually reduces the immune system’s ability to recognize the virus.
Wolfgang Preiser, as head of the Department of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, was involved in the discovery of the new variant. “Not everything is representative of what happens in the patient,” says the German scientist. “There are some disturbing changes in this new variant, but I assume that there is at most a reduced effectiveness.”
Even that is “bearable” in many different scenarios. In South Africa one will now examine how participants in the current vaccine studies in the country against the Mutant be protected. “I’m not particularly worried though, this is not an ‘all or nothing’ effect.”
Overall, how systematically South Africa is researching new variants should be praised, according to the scientist. “Now more and more countries are discovering their own variants,” says Preiser. “They didn’t search beforehand, at least not as systematically and nationwide as in South Africa.” However, the development also shows that rapid vaccination is important worldwide. The longer the virus circulates, the more it will change: “That’s what viruses do.”
In Germany, the South African variant has been used so far occasionally detected. This is the case in 23 nations worldwide. The affected countries in southern Africa also include Zambia and Botswana, where most of the affected patients had not traveled for a long time – which suggests that the mutation is already spreading to a certain extent among the local population there.
With 3.3 million cases and 82,000 deaths, Africa continues to have significantly lower numbers than other regions. But over a third of the cases and almost half of the deaths were in South Africa. With a death rate of 2.5 percent, the continent is now, unlike during the first wave of infections, above the global average of 2.2 percent.
So far there are no indications that the South Africa variant is more deadly, but its increased infectivity is considered certain. The death rate is particularly true in Africa, where there are comparatively few patients of risk age, as the more reliable size than those of new infections.
After all, with a few exceptions such as South Africa and Rwanda, most nations do not test enough to get a realistic picture of the infection situation. An increased death rate could therefore indicate a high number of unreported cases.
In the past few days, the Foreign Minister of Zimbabwe, Sibusiso Moyo (60), and Jackson Mthembu (62), one of the formative figures of the South African ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), have died.
England has even issued an entry ban for 13 African countries, even if the new variant has not been proven in all of them. In many places, the technical possibilities of genome analysis are lacking for this, partly – in Tanzania – but also the political will.
In Germany a was valid from December 21st Ban on carriage for travelers from the “virus variant area” classified South Africa. This ban was lifted on January 13th. In addition to the quarantine obligation, travelers must also show a negative corona test.
In April, South Africa reacted to the threat of the corona virus with one of the sharpest lockdowns in the world. The resulting economic damage has the clammy government now weigh every measure very carefully – although the new variant is at least 50 percent more contagious and was found in a large majority of the samples analyzed.
The national borders with neighboring countries were closed to passenger traffic, as were beaches and many parks. Entry by plane is still possible. And the restaurants are also open.
At the same time, the South African government recently gave a poor picture of its vaccination strategy. The country wants to vaccinate 40 million people by the end of the year, that is two-thirds of the population. However, deadlines for the advance payment to the Covax vaccine platform were missed, and significant bilateral negotiations with manufacturers have only been ongoing since the end of last year. There is also still uncertainty about the financing of the costs of at least one billion euros.