Scientists in South Africa have found that people infected by the Covid-19 501Y.V2 variant developed antibodies and may be protected from possible re-infection.
But they have warned that this does not mean non-pharmaceutical protocols should not be adhered to by those who tested positive for the virus because the results were still being tested.
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The scientists, including Professor Tulio de Oliveira of Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), Koleka Mlisana, executive manager at the NHLS and Penny Moore from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases - presented that the new variant gives immune responses that protects people from getting other variants of the virus.
These findings were announced during a joint media briefing on Wednesday held by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.
The scientists found that plasma collected from people who were infected with the new variant had a good neutralising activity, also against "first wave" viruses and potential other variants.
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They, among other factors, detected that a new variant with multiple spike mutations affected some vaccine responses and that people infected with the virus had immunity against the variant and other potential lineages.
The scientists presented that the findings were important for the design of a vaccine and suggested that vaccines that were modified to contain the variant spike were likely to protect against multiple variants.
They also announced that vaccine developers were testing the second generation antibodies.
Presently the Minister of Higher Education, Science & Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande & Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize are hosting a virtual media briefing to discuss the latest scientific results relating to the COVID-19 variant.— NICD (@nicd_sa) March 3, 2021
Scientist Penny Moore said, despite the findings, it was important that people who were infected with the 501Y.V2 variant, continued adhering to the prescribed non-pharmaceutical interventions.
"We have known for a long time that people who are infected develop good antibody responses, but there are many questions we don't know. We don't know how long those antibodies do last in people who have become infected.
"And we don't know how much antibody is enough to protect you from re-infection. So, while we assume that people who have become infected with the new variant are protected to some extent from re-infection, we don't know how long that protection will last," Professor Moore said.
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The scientists said the results should be received as good news as the country continues to face the Covid-19 challenge.
News24 reported last year that genomics scientists from across the country, who analysed the genetic samples of the virus since the start of the pandemic, under the auspices of KRISP, discovered the 501Y.V2 variant.
The new variant, which has between 10 and 20 new mutations, was seen spreading rapidly since the end of September last year.
Oliveira said the new variant has many more mutations, even where they are not wanted.
"So the 501Y.V2 has around nine mutations, with these three ones being very important; the 417, 484 and 501, because the 501 has been associated with high transmission and the 484 with decreased neutralisation of antibodies...," Oliveira said.
Oliveira said Dr Alex Sigal, in his research, noticed that in the 501Y.V2 variant, as more plasma was added from previous infection - resulted in neutralisation.
Presenting the results, Sigal said they found the new variant could neutralise itself.
"So, if you have higher concentrations of your blood, therefore, antibodies, you will have no virus because it's being blocked by these antibodies and as you go to lower concentrations you get more and more virus," he said.
"What was surprising to us is what happened to first wave virus; so we used this plasma from people who were infected in this latest wave with the 501Y.V2 and we used it against the first wave virus, the earlier variant - and what we found that it could neutralise itself," Sigal said.
Mkhize commended Nzimande's department for supporting the work done by the researchers, adding that it was encouraging.
Mkhize said the new discovery on the new variant was a huge boost in the scientific knowledge necessary to control Covid-19. He added that this opened a conversation with the manufacturers of various vaccines, stating they need to also target 501Y.V2.
"We again want to commend them for that, because this is the team that first showed us that the change in the second wave was actually driven by the predominance of this variant, 501Y.V2.
"We are going to be approaching the vaccination programme with this knowledge in mind. We hope that this [information] that has been demonstrated is actually going to help us as we move on advancing in the area of surveillance genomics..."