Scientists have proposed parachuting additional vaccine shipments to southern Africa to prepare the region for an expected surge in cases caused by the new variant of Covid-19.
The variant – called B.1.1.529 – is due to its “very unusual constellation” of mutations, 32 of which are located in the spike protein of the virus, as highly transferable and effective in defending against the body’s own immune response.
Many virologists have started to sound the alarm about the variant, warning that preventive measures must be taken as soon as possible, while others have insisted that more data and time are needed to determine the threat posed by B.1.1.529.
The variant was first spotted in Botswana, where three cases have since been identified. Across the border, in South Africa, around 100 cases have been detected – although there are fears in both countries that the mutation is responsible for a larger number of infections.
In response, experts have said that action must be taken early on if the option turns out to be as problematic as feared.
“The time has clearly come,” said Dr. Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, stressed that a “massive influx” of supplies or vaccines could be an option.
He added that it is worthwhile “trying to be creative in what we can do to help areas facing a new variant and in addition to trying to limit its spread”.
Although Dr. Barrett warned that he did not know enough about the situation in South Africa to recommend a definitive strategy, he warned that “for any kind of response, if it pays at all, it pays to act quickly”. Delayed action “undermines the value of whatever you choose, as we have seen time and again around the world.”
“Exponential distribution and global travel mean every day counts,” he added.
Dr. Steve Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, said South Africa “needs additional support”. He also cited the example of sending additional doses of vaccine into the country, but went further and suggested that “reasonable travel restrictions” might be needed.
“Take action now, if it turns out it’s going to be a storm in a teacup, then step back,” he said. “I despair that people continue to advise waiting vigilantly.”
Professor Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, agreed that helping to expand vaccination in southern Africa was “an excellent idea”.
“If it’s a false positive, we can stop responding in a couple of weeks,” she said. “But this is our window to action.”
Early analysis suggests the variant has grown rapidly in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, and could already be present in the country’s other eight provinces, according to the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
Scientists believe that up to 90 percent of the new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, and it is feared that it will be “quickly superseded” by Delta, which is still the dominant variant worldwide.
South Africa requested an urgent meeting of a World Health Organization (WHO) working group on virus development on Friday to discuss the new variant.
Health Secretary Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.
Although the country is believed to have high natural immunity among the population, it is struggling with the introduction of the national vaccine. So far, around 24 percent of people in South Africa have been vaccinated twice.
B.1.1.529 was also found in a person who returned to Hong Kong after visiting South Africa.
Ewan Birney, Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said on Twitter that the new variant “definitely looks”[s] like a red code ”.
He added: “Time to red list international travel from southern Africa, monitor circulating SARS-CoV-2 (isolates, wastewater), drugs and vaccines to South Africa …”
Others are not that concerned about the advent of B.1.1.529. Professor David Matthews, a virologist at the University of Bristol, said he didn’t think the variant could overcome vaccine protection.
“We’ve spent the last two years hearing about variants that seem to make the sky fall and they don’t,” he said. “Unless this new variant does something spectacularly different, like taking people who have been vaccinated to hospital or people who have recovered to hospital, then I’m not worried at this point.
“People think that the virus can just change endlessly and become more and more dangerous. But it can’t. There are restrictions on what viruses can do. “
Dr. Jake Dunning, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Tropical Medicine and Global Health at Oxford University, admitted that at this early stage it is “difficult to say” whether specific targeted measures to deal with the new variant are “appropriate, effective or necessary “.
“Of course, it makes sense and right to increase immunity through widespread vaccination, especially for those with known risk groups and medical staff, just in case,” he added.
“Rich countries have a moral duty to step up now and make real efforts to speed up vaccination.”