501Y.V2 gave us a bad name, but it could be to our benefit
The 501Y.V2 Covid variant has been called the South African variant. However, we are not sure it even arose in SA. Calling it the South African variant is not only wrong, it’s also discriminatory. Using science in the pandemic response has been a positive in SA and led to a climate of transparency in the evolution of Covid-19.
Our recent results, published in the journal Nature, indicate that the variant first discovered in SA elutes high-level antibodies that can help to design more effective vaccines.
Viruses evolve, changing shape to adapt and survive. While people may immediately choose panic and shock in response to new variants of the coronavirus being discovered, science continues to remind us that being transparent to results is important. There’s a saying that in order to defeat your enemy you need to know it.
Headlines with the phrase “South African variant” have created a perception that has been interpreted as negative. Tourists and even locals might look at the country as a breeding ground for variants of Covid-19. But the discovery of the variant has enabled SA to respond to it quickly and decrease the deadly second wave.
Since the world was struck by this pandemic, a lot has changed, and so has the virus. There is no single Covid-19 virus. There is an entire population of viruses that exist and are constantly evolving. It would be incorrect to say that there is only one variant of Covid-19 in any place in the world. Therefore, it is hard to say that only one variant exists in SA. Before the emergence of 501Y.V2, there were 20 to 50 lineages circulating in the country.
Adam Godzik, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine, described the emergence of various variants as a tree with many branches. The variant first discovered in SA is a major branch of a tree with many other smaller branches. “Some of these smaller ones may grow faster than others and assume more importance,” said Godzik.
Imagine that there are many trees all over the world, growing at different paces and discovered at different points. This does not mean that one area is more susceptible to more variants of Covid-19; it means they are found in some places sooner than others. When certain variants, or branches, are discovered that seem resistant to antibodies, or that have mutations that are worrying, they are studied as variants of concern (VoC). These VoCs can be discovered anywhere and have been discovered since late last year. As they emerge, they are given complicated numeral names that are hard to keep track of. Scientists have found it easier to base the names of these variants on the countries where they were discovered.
The South African variant is only one of many other VoCs in the world. Many other variants were discovered around the globe. This means that a Covid-19 variant with a similar genetic makeup to the one discovered in SA is found elsewhere. That eliminates the purpose of calling it the South African variant because it has now been detected in more than 50 countries and we are not sure that it even emerged in SA. The reason for naming a variant after its country of origin is just to make it easier for scientists to identify them easier, crossnationally.
News outlets and other media have been using the term “South African variant” to paint a negative picture of SA and to imply that because it comes from here (or was first detected here) it is more deadly. This is why professor Salim Abdool Karim, former co-chair of SA’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, and I have been adamant in changing this view of the country in all international media interviews that we give.
Abdool Karim prefers that popular media refer to the variant as 501Y.V2, instead of the South African variant, because there is no evidence that the virus emanated from SA even if it was first detected here.
The message is simple: variants exist everywhere and naming what is now popularly referred to as the South African variant was purely a record of discovery as opposed to origin. It is just a name tag for us all to know where scientists discovered it first, which defies the norms for genetic sequencing. It is not a reason to harbour prejudice or to close borders in fear of dreaded South Africans carrying the dreaded variant.
The variant discovered in SA has been detected all over the world and it is a matter of interest because of how quickly it spreads. We have been warned by both our government (the president and the ministers of health, higher education and science & innovation) that the more variants likely to emerge the better because the government and pharmaceutical companies can enhance drugs available against the existing strains, including 501Y.V2.
It has also been discovered that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was administered to our health-care workers before being briefly halted, has proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant. We are now working with all of the other vaccine manufacturers to make sure that their vaccines are effective against this variant.
A team of SA scientists also discovered that those who contracted the 501Y.V2 variant now have better immunity against existing coronavirus mutations. This is good news because it means that a vaccine modelled on this strain could be stronger in protecting people against future variants.
It turns out the variant that is giving SA a bad reputation could be helpful in creating stronger vaccines. Nevertheless, the impact on our economy and to our reputation has been caused by misinformation and a lack of consideration.
As more variants are found around the world and as we face more threats of unknown danger in the future, it is important that we close this particularly damaging chapter.
Do not think of it as the South African variant. If 501Y.V2 is too complicated for you, just think of it as the “virus first detected in SA”.
As more of SA’s population receives the vaccine best fit to fight this variant sooner rather than later, it won’t be detected here anymore.
So we need to know our enemy to fight it. In the end our more “dangerous variant” may help the whole world to derive more effective vaccines and interventions. History tells us that “the truth may make us free”.
✼ De Oliveira is the director of Krips, an initiative of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Technology Innovation Agency and the SA Medical Research Council