South Africa Covid mutation more worrying ‘by some margin’ due to ‘substantial change’

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South Africa was added to a list of restricted travel areas shortly before Christmas after a variant of the coronavirus native to the country was first reported in the UK. Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, admitted the strain should “worry a lot” health officials over concerns current vaccines may be unable to stop transmission. Asked which mutation concerned him the most, Sir John told Times Radio: “The South African, by some margin.

“They both have multiple mutations in them so they’re not a single mutation, they’re multiple, different mutations.

“The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein.

“The protein has got a domain which binds to the human cells, it’s called the receptor-binding domain. It is where the virus attaches itself and so if you get an immune response that protects you, one of the ways it protects you is it gets in the way of that biding event.

“You rely on antibodies to bind to that domain to stop the virus from biding onto your cells. If you mess around with that, you’re in trouble.”

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Sir John noted the South African strain was found to have developed a “big mutation” to the structure of the coronavirus which could ultimately affect the vaccines currently being rolled out.

He however estimated a new jab could be developed within 4 to 6 weeks to immunise the global population against the new COVID-19 mutation.

The Oxford epidemiologist continued: “The Kent variant, there’s a number of mutations that are not in the receptor-binding domain, it’s only on one bit of that domain. The best way to imagine it is two shoulders and a neck. 

The South African strain has a big mutation on one shoulder and there is going to be no antibodies that stick to that. So I would worry a lot about the South African strain.

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My gut feeling is I think the vaccine will be still effective against the Kent strain. I don’t know about the South African strain, I think there’s a big question mark about that.

“We’ve got a bit of headroom with the vaccines because they work much work than anyone of us thought they were going to work. Essentially, they completely prevent new disease.”

Sir John added: “We’ve got room to manoeuvre if they worked 20 percent less well because of the mutation, we’d still have vaccines.

“It’s unlikely these mutations will turn off the effect of the vaccine entirely, they will still have residual effects.”

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Sir John’s comments come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted further coronavirus restrictions may be needed over the coming weeks to avoid a further increase in new infections.

Mr Johnson on Sunday said: “If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.”

The Prime Minister insisted his Government “will do everything we can to keep the virus under control” as he added: “I must stress at this critical moment it is so vital that people keep disciplined.

“I think the public have been fantastic in the way they have tried to follow the guidance.”

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