New Covid strains and what they mean for vaccine

Monday January 11 2021

The new strains have raised concerns on the fate of vaccine development. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


On December 14 last year the UK announced it had recorded a new strain of the coronavirus. The new strain was named as VUI-202012/01.

It has been reported to be 70 per cent more transmissible than the existing coronavirus strain in the country. After this announcement, the World Health Organization reported the presence of this new strain in Netherlands, Australia and Denmark.

Barely a week later, South Africa reported yet another new strain. The new strain, dubbed 501.V2, was said to have mutated more than the UK strain and quickly became the most dominant in reported new cases of infection in South Africa.

On Christmas Eve, another strain was identified in Nigeria and named as P681H. Apart from these three strains, at least 31 countries have reported new variants of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The new strains come in the wake of vaccine developments and approvals. They have raised concerns on the fate of vaccine development and the socio-economic and health impact their mutations will have on the fight against the pandemic. For example, from December 21, 2020, the UK imposed restrictions in London and Southern England where the new variant was mostly spreading. By December 22, over 53 countries had banned flights to the UK.

Ban on flights


However, Kenya announced it would not ban flights from the UK. According to Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya favoured tougher travelling measures for passengers arriving from the UK than a total ban on flights. “We have stricter travel measures with the UK than the US and the Europeans have,” said Kagwe.

According to Dr Moses Masika, a virologist at the University of Nairobi, the new strains might just be the beginning. “New strains of the coronavirus will keep on developing,” he said.

The majority of countries that have been reporting the new strains are those that have been doing virus genome sequencing to determine the characterisation. “Kenya and the majority of African countries have not been doing genome sequencing. This means the new strains of the coronavirus might already be in the country, but have not been detected yet,” he said.

However, Dr Masika pointed out that anyone with the new strain in Kenya will still test positive for Covid-19 when tested with the current diagnostic tests.

The most troubling feature in the new strains is their multiple mutations. According to Dr William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, unlike the existing coronavirus variants, the new strains are characterised by many mutations.

“The new strains from the UK and South Africa are independent of each other, but share some related characteristics. One of these is the mutation S:N501Y which binds affinity to the receptor the virus uses to enter cells,” he said in the latest Harvard research report on Sars-Cov-2.

Due to their high rate of transmission, Dr Masika said the presence of new strains should be of concern to the national efforts against Covid-19, but Kenya should not panic yet.

“There is no current evidence the new strain causes more severe Covid-19. It is not markedly different from other strains, despite its ability to spread faster,” he added.

Swine flu

In addition, Dr Masika said the new variant had not yet been proven to be resistant to the already developed Covid-19 vaccines.

One way of ensuring the newly developed vaccines do not lose out to new variants is by constantly monitoring their efficacy, he said. “We need to keep on collecting information to confirm that the vaccines are still working in the face of new variants,” said Dr Masika.

The virologist said Kenya should continue to observe the current health measures and protocols against Covid-19. “The measures are adequate in curbing the spread of the new variants as well as diagnosing people who may have new strains,” he said.

In Kenya, 97,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19. Over 1,600 have died while 78,800 have recovered.

Although Sars-Cov-2 is a fairly new virus, the world can take comfort in previous related virus mutations. In January 2009, a new H1N1 influenza virus was found in humans. This virus which caused swine flu quickly mutated and led to an influenza pandemic that lasted from January 2009 to August 2010.

The swine flu was reported to be the result of new strains of H1N1 and H3N2 strains of the influenza virus. However, the virus mutations did not affect vaccine development.

By December 2009, influenza vaccines were returning 95 per cent effectiveness and cutting hospital admissions by up to 64 per cent.