The B1351 strain of coronavirus, often referred to as the South African strain, is on its way to becoming the dominant COVID-19 strain throughout the world, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says.
During a national coronavirus update, Professor Kelly said 80 countries across all six World Health Organization regions had now recorded imported cases or community transmission of the strain.
“That is becoming the normal strain of the virus that is circulating around the world,” he added.
“We need to be prepared for those strains which are definitely more able to be transmitted between people [and] may be associated with more severity. That is still information we need to continue to watch carefully.”
So what does this all mean for us?
How far has it travelled in Australia?
Australia recorded its first case of the South African variant in hotel quarantine late last year.
Professor Kelly said that as of February 5, 18 samples of the B1351 strain had been recorded in Australia.
Eighty-seven samples of the B117 strain initially found in the UK have been recorded, he added.
The South African variant is believed to be more contagious than the most common strain of COVID-19.
Professor Eddie Holmes, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Sydney, told Coronacast that when a new variant replaced the other variants in a population, it probably did so because it was more transmissible.
“The really compelling thing for me is that it’s not just spreading really rapidly, but it’s replacing all the other variants in the population,” Professor Holmes said in relation to the UK variant.
“That suggests it’s got some advantages.”
Why is the South African variant more transmissible?
As is the case with the UK (B117) and Brazil (P1) variants, the B1351 strain carries a mutation to its spike protein that enables it to bind more tightly to human cells. This potentially increases its ability to spread.
Additionally, the South African and Brazilian variants carry two additional mutations that could seriously impact the effectiveness of the current vaccines.
How is the B1351 strain’s rise impacting the vaccine rollout abroad?
Early data from an Oxford University study has suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine offers only “minimal protection” against mild disease caused by the South Africa variant.
The study hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, but following the news, South Africa halted its rollout of the jab.
“Protection against moderate-severe disease, hospitalisation or death could not be assessed in this study as the target population were at such low risk,” a statement from Oxford University read.
AstraZeneca’s lead researcher later said the company expected to have a vaccine to cope with the South African coronavirus variant by September.
And the company maintains the vaccine will still protect recipients against “severe disease”.
After initially announcing a pause in its rollout, on Monday South African authorities said the vaccine would be rolled out in a “stepped manner” by issuing 100,000 doses to see if it prevents hospitalisations and deaths.
The head of South Africa’s vaccine program has said further study of the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca jab is vital.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim said it would be important to track the next 100,000 people who get the AstraZeneca jab, to see how sick they become.
“What we’re dealing with is a situation where new evidence is becoming available all the time,” he said.
“We need to be able to absorb that new evidence, we need to be able to respond to that new evidence.
“Sometimes the new evidence adds clarity, sometimes that evidence creates confusion.”
What could this mean for Australia’s vaccine rollout?
Professor Kelly said he was wary of people coming to snap conclusions about how potential dominance of the South African coronavirus strain could impact the vaccine rollout.
“I just want to make a very clear statement about people taking small amounts of information quickly, without looking at it carefully, and making conclusions,” he said.
“At the moment I can absolutely say, and this may change in the future … but at the moment, there’s no evidence anywhere in the world [that] AstraZeneca’s effectiveness against severe infection is affected by any of these variants of concern.
“What we have at the moment is a small group of people in a study not yet peer-reviewed or published in South Africa where there was an effect on the mild or moderate disease in relation to that variant of concern in that country.
“But there were no severe infections in any of the people that received the vaccine in regards to any of those types of the virus.”
Professor Kelly said that while Australian officials don’t yet have any information on that, they’ll be looking at that carefully as time goes by.
The Chief Medical Officer said he expected to speak with his UK counterparts about the issue “in the coming days”.
“That will be helpful data for us in the coming weeks and months, and also for the [Therapeutic Goods Administration] in their assessment.”