Can the corona mutation from South Africa still be stopped? This is what we know about the ‘now’ variant

Travelers at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa line up for a PCR test.Image REUTERS

Can the variant still be stopped?

As far as we know, the new variant of the coronavirus is not yet circulating in Europe, although two suspected cases have now surfaced in Belgium. With a no-fly zone from southern Africa, it is hoped in any case to prevent worse. The only question is to what extent this will still be successful, says virologist Chantal Reusken (RIVM). ‘The measures to slow down this virus seem necessary to me. The season is not going well, and we already have enough problems. At the same time, history shows that it is very difficult to keep a virus out. Think of the delta variant, from India: it has also reached the whole world in a short time.’

Why are virologists so concerned?

The virus variant – which will probably be given the designation ‘now’, after the Greek letter ‘ν’ – seems to be rapidly displacing the delta variant in South Africa. This indicates that it is even more contagious than the already highly contagious delta virus: about 25 to 30 percent according to initial estimates. And a virus that is more contagious means that even more measures, and an even higher vaccination rate, are needed to stop the virus from spreading.

In the South African province of Gauteng, the virus went from 1 to 30 percent of all infections in three weeks, Reusken says. In addition, virologists in other provinces see a strange signal in their swab tests, which seems to indicate the presence of the virus. Because the virus has such abnormal spines, some swab tests respond slightly differently.

Does it also make you sicker?

That can’t be said yet. At the same time, it is clear that the variant has undergone all kinds of changes to its protrusions that virologists are familiar with from previous problem variants. As a result, he may be able to partially evade the protection provided by vaccines, or people who have been protected by a previous infection may still become ill. ‘The interpretation is still very difficult. But the first signs are not nice, so to speak’, says Reusken.

Where exactly are the ‘variant vaccines’?

In principle, current vaccines can be quickly adapted to possible new variants, as vaccinologists have always promised. After all, the new generation of corona vaccines are built around a specific piece of genetic code, which teaches the body what the virus’s protrusion protein looks like. In the case of a virus with other protrusions, one only needs to update that code, a bit like a virus scanner on the computer sometimes needs to be updated with the latest computer viruses that are in circulation.

So far, however, the corona vaccines have protected against the alpha, beta, gamma and delta variant of the coronavirus so well that vaccine manufacturers have not yet considered such an update necessary. However, people use the interim to practice in advance. For example, manufacturer Pfizer is currently testing a beta variant-specific corona vaccine on 930 subjects in Germany, and trials are being prepared in the US with vaccines against the beta and delta variant, by manufacturer Moderna.

The aim is to gain experience with the procedures needed to quickly develop, test and market a variant vaccine if the need arises. “Practicing with existing variants seems to be a sensible approach,” vaccine developer Paul Bieniasz recently said in a professional journal. Nature. It is still unclear whether the now variant is sufficient reason to launch such a variant vaccine.

Where exactly does the virus come from?

Many experts assume that the variant did not originate in South Africa itself, but elsewhere. Because in many African countries coronaviruses are not properly genetically read, it is conceivable that the virus remained under the radar for a long time, until it was discovered in South Africa. A strong indication of this is that the variant has remarkably old roots: it is related to the very earliest coronaviruses that emerged at the beginning of last year, rather than to the later variants.

That can mean anything, virologist Marion Koopmans told this newspaper before. Perhaps the virus lay dormant in one country until it acquired a mutation that suddenly “staged” it and allowed it to spread. Or perhaps the virus hid for a while in an animal host, where it mutated to its present form and jumped back to humans.

Under the hood: what makes the variant special?

The new variant has undergone 32 mutations to its prongs, plus dozens more in other parts. With such a mutation, a virus gets a different building block in a certain place because small errors sometimes creep into its genetic construction plan during reproduction. For example, the current variant carries the mutation called ‘N501Y’: the amino acid ‘Y’ (tyrosine) has been placed in position number 501 instead of building block ‘N’ (asparagine). A change, which was also seen in the ‘British’ variant and the mink variant considered dangerous in Denmark.

What exactly that will mean, however, is another story. ‘Not every mutation has meaning,’ says professor of coronavirology Eric Snijder (LUMC). ‘There are mutations here that are known as problem mutations, such as N501Y, and mutations that are completely new. Plus: there is a chance that certain mutations only cause problems in combination with others. It would of course be nice if we could say just on the basis of the construction plan how problematic this virus is, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. I think the reality is that it takes weeks or months of research to do that.’

…And by the way, why do we jump from the delta to the ‘now’ anyway?

Very simple actually. There are also variants named after the intermediate Greek letters, but they have created less furore. For example, the kappa variant (from India) has been almost completely supplanted by the delta variant (also from India), and the lambda and mu variants are slowly circulating in South America.