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S.Africa virus strain ‘offers immunity against other variants’

A new study has shown that people previously infected by the Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa have better immunity against other coronavirus mutations, experts said Wednesday.

The findings, from yet to be peer-reviewed research by the team of South African scientists who discovered the 501Y.V2 variant, raise hopes that vaccines modelled on the strain could protect against future mutations.

Identified late last year, the variant became the dominant strain in Africa’s worst hit nation by the pandemic, fuelling the second wave of infection and delaying the start of vaccinations in February.

Scientists said Wednesday that plasma collected from people infected with the variant had “good neutralising activity”, including against “first wave” viruses and potentially other variants of concern.

After the antibodies were tested against the original variant and another identified in Brazil, “results are showing a clear sense of direction”, virologist Tulio de Oliveira said in a video conference.

“The 501Y.V2 can produce a high level of antibodies that can neutralise itself,” he said, adding that the immune response outperforms previous variants.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told the same meeting that the discovery was “good news for all” as it presented a huge boost to the control of the pandemic.

Only four percent of a sample of 55 patients who had 501Y.V2 failed to neutralise infection from the original coronavirus variant, data presented by the scientists showed.

Meanwhile the antibodies were fully effective against the strain identified in Brazil, although only seven patients — a small number — were examined in one of the analyses.

Coronavirus mutations — some more contagious — had put a damper on global vaccination programmes after existing shots were found to offer less protection against them.

Manufacturers have in recent weeks raced to tweak their formulas in response to the spread of newer variants.

US biotechnology company Moderna last week said it will begin in mid-March a clinical trial of a version of its vaccine specific to the South Africa variant.

Top government advisor and leading epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim explained that shots developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna uses mRNA technology to elicit antibody production, and that the recent development bodes well for achieving immunity.

“These findings are basically telling us that we have a good prospect of success if we make a vaccine based on it,” he said.