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New coronavirus variant spreading 50% faster in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG: Previous Covid-19 infection may offer less protection against the new variant first identified in South Africa, scientists said on Monday, although they hope that vaccines will still work.

Studies also found that the new variant binds more strongly and readily to human cells. That helps explain why it seems to be spreading around 50 per cent quicker than previous versions, leading South African epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim said.

The 501Y.V2 variant was identified by South African genomics experts late last year.

It has been the main driver of a second wave of infections in the country, which hit a new daily peak above 21,000 cases earlier this month.

It is one of several new variants found in recent months, including others first discovered in England and Brazil, which scientists worry are hastening the spread of Covid-19.

"Convalescent serum studies suggest natural antibodies are less effective," Professor Abdool Karim said introducing the research, but current data suggest the new variant is not more severe.

British scientists and politicians have expressed concern that vaccines currently being deployed or in development could be less effective against the variant. Scientists said there was not yet a clear answer to that question and that studies were continuing.

"We have reason to be concerned because the virus has found a way to escape from previous antibodies," virologist Alex Sigal at the Africa Health Research Institute said.

"The world has underestimated this virus. This virus can evolve, it... is adapting to us."

Earlier, South African researchers said that since vaccines induce a broad immune response, it was unlikely the mutations in the spike protein of the variant would completely negate their effect.

"Our immune systems are extraordinarily clever," team member Willem Hanekom said.

"There may be compensation through other arms of the immune system that allow vaccines to still work."

The 501Y.V2 variant has spread to nations in Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as several other African countries. - REUTERS

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