A more contagious strain of COVID-19 has emerged in South Africa and was confirmed to be found in South Carolina in January 2021. The strain was found to spread easier and quicker than others. 

The South Africa strain, also known as B.1.351, was first announced in December 2020, following a week-long graduation party of more than 3,000 high school students. Though there is no established causative relationship between the superspreader event and the emergence of the new COVID-19 strain in South Africa, this strain was shown to affect young people disproportionately.

“The beginnings of South Africa’s second wave may have predated the recent parties, but they served to amplify the spread of the virus at a critical time so that it created widespread community transmission,” said Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of South Africa’s coronavirus task force.

South African researchers believe that this new COVID-19 strain is around 50% more transmissible. This South African variant has a large number of mutations in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus’ surface that attaches to and enters human cells. 

Viruses mutate rapidly, and COVID-19 has thousands of mutations that have already been identified. However, certain mutations can make the virus more contagious or deadly, which can possibly decrease vaccine efficacy.

Since most vaccines target the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus, the South African variant is a cause for concern as it has three characteristic mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein.

According to a recent study, these mutations do not decrease the efficacy of vaccines, namely the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Further studies will need to be conducted to determine how other mutations will be treated by antibody neutralization of vaccines. 

Though this South African variant of COVID-19 has been shown to be more contagious, there is no indication of increased severity of illness, though research is still being conducted to better understand this variant.

Viruses do not normally have the opportunity to gain beneficial mutations in their genetic code because they do not spread as quickly or effective treatments are developed. However, due to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 around the world, it has been mutating into stronger and more efficient variants. 

“This perpetual cycle goes on of constant replication. Each time a replication occurs, there is a small chance that code could change,” said Dr. Douglas Kasper, MD, the section head of infectious disease at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria and a leader in the OSF HealthCare response to COVID-19. “When you have this go over a huge population over time, the odds start to favor that the virus will adjust. It’s evolution on a very rapid level.”

Though the spike protein may mutate in this strain of COVID-19, vaccines tested against many variations of the protein have shown to be effective thus far. 

“It was always likely that there would need to be an adjustment,” Kasper said. “It’s not back to the drawing board if there is an unexpected change. The technology exists and has been tested. All it would require is changing the code that is in the vaccine.”

COVID-19, as all other viruses, will continue to mutate throughout time, but increased transmissibility can be combated by remaining vigilant about social distancing, wearing a mask, and limiting nonessential gatherings. 

The faster that the virus spreads and infects people, the faster it replicates and the higher the chances of mutation and a dramatic shift in viral structure.

“If we could slow down the number of infections, we could slow down the chances of mutations occurring,” Kasper said.

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