I would like to preface by taking one step back… COVID19 is just not mutating very quickly. Overall, the virus circulating today looks relatively similar to the one that appeared in late 2019. This is because when COVID19 copies itself, it uses a proofreading system to catch errors. The COVID19 virus is proofreading itself much more than, say, the flu. The flu virus is constantly changing; we have to create a new flu vaccine every year. The measles virus is on the other side of the spectrum; it hasn’t changed since we discovered it in the 1960s. COVID19 is somewhere in between. This is important context to keep in mind.
With that said, the virus is changing. This is normal. The South Africa (SA) variant has recently grabbed the attention of scientists. Like the UK variant, the SA variant has a few mutations on the spike protein. It’s particularly important to look at these because the virus spike is the key to opening the doors on our organ’s cells (called ACE2 receptors). We want to know whether the virus is making smarter keys; just like we are making smarter locks (vaccines).
Of the several changes on the spike, there is one in particular (called E484K) we are looking closely at for two reasons:
1) E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition IN THE LAB. As such, the virus goes “incognito” and antibodies tend to not recognize it. It’s not clear yet whether the COVID19 E484K mutation tricks antibodies triggered by current vaccinations.
2) It’s a bit more difficult to track compared to the UK variant that’s easily detectable on a PCR test.
Thus far, the SA variant has spread to other countries including Austria, Norway, Japan, UK, Finland, Australia, Zambia, France, and most recently South Korea.
There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or that a vaccine wouldn’t protect us.
IF it did trick vaccines (and that’s a big if), vaccine formulas can be changed very quickly (in a matter of 4-6 weeks). Pfizer and Moderna are testing the SA variant now and will let us know soon.
My scientific opinion:
- It’s just too late for travel restrictions in regards to the SA variant. It’s already spread internationally.
- It’s way too early to panic about the SA variant or the COVID19 virus mutating overall. We haven’t really seen the full diversity of how the virus can mutate. This takes time. We just have to wait and see.