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New Covid variants: Africa suffers

Several recent mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus show signs of being both more infectious and resistant to antibodies from ‘old’ Covid. One of the most vicious is 501Y.v2. Also known as B1351, it’s endemic to South Africa, where coronavirus deaths are rising sharply.

These new versions of the virus have been detected in Europe, including the UK.

Southern Africa

South Africa has already suffered more deaths in the first 3 weeks of January than in the 3 previous months combined. The line chart shows their sharp increase in mortality – and Eswatini, which shares most of its border with South Africa, is going up almost vertically.

The other small country, Lesotho, has all of its borders in South Africa but has only reported a small increase in Covid-related deaths so far. Sadly, this probably isn’t true. Lesotho’s government is accused of misappropriating their coronavirus budget, while the country suffers food shortages under lockdown, hospitals are overwhelmed and mortuaries can’t cope.

Neighbouring countries Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana have shown sharp upturns very recently, too.

Patchy reporting from Africa

Total Covid mortality in Africa stands at 82,883. It’s relatively low for the population size of 1.4 billion – but information isn’t the best from this continent. Distances are vast, often with extremely poor communications. Much of the region is fighting famine, war, natural disasters, mass migration, terrible budgets and inept government systems. Despite these issues, some countries have excellent community health networks and efficient bureaucracies: South Africa is one such, and some North African nations.

Northern Africa

Coronavirus deaths started rising quickly in Tunisia at the end of October, and their upward gradient has now got even steeper.

Despite an ongoing civil war which destroyed Libya‘s health service, they’ve managed to keep their Covid mortality increases to a steady level so far (that we know of).

Morocco takes public health very seriously and responded to the pandemic’s arrival with new community health systems and enforced restrictions. The government relaxed the rules for Eid, resulting in a bad September for the country, but Moroccan deaths have slowed significantly since then.

Covid-19 pandemic in Africa (wikipedia)

501Y.v2, the ‘South African’ mutant

501Y.v2 shares similarities with the English and Brazilian variants in that it contains both the N501Y and E484K spike protein mutations. Also known as B1351, it’s now being confirmed by labs across the world that the variant has high resistance to antibodies from ‘old’ Covid, even demonstrating “complete immune escape”. This doesn’t mean the vaccines won’t work, but it does mean prior infection with another version of Covid-19 won’t provide immunity. Vaccine effectiveness may be reduced, particularly if you don’t get the second dose on schedule, and they will probably have to be redesigned every year as the virus evolves. This is already what happens with the flu.

Covid vaccines may need updating to protect against new variant, study suggests (Guardian)

Emerging Coronavirus Variants May Pose Challenges to Vaccines (New York Times)


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