How dangerous is it? Scientists study South African COVID-19 variant

‘People have to take lessons from this’

DURBAN, South Africa (CNN) – A new year and a new level of sadness in South Africa as the pace of the pandemic accelerates. There’s also a new level of fatigue.

“It is a time we never thought we would experience in our lives,” said Salim Kazi of the Islamic Burial Council. “It is here and it is a reality.”

A second wave of COVID-19 is devastating South Africa.

The Islamic Burial Council used to average two COVID-19 funerals per day. Now, the number is 12, sometimes 14 a day.

“People have to take lessons from this,” Kazi said. “God is testing everybody.”

A country that defied the odds in its fight against COVID-19 most of last year finds itself being tested like never before.

A troubling new variant of the virus that is much more contagious than the original strain was discovered in one of South Africa’s own labs.

The first clues were the panicked calls from doctors whose hospitals were being overrun.

Using samples from newly infected COVID patients across South Africa, genetic sequencing revealed the variant’s exact mutations.

“So, we can actually see what is going on,” said Tulio de Oliveira at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine. “These cells actually are quite happy and they grow and divide.”

COVID-19 targets those cells.

“The same thing as is if you would actually mug someone,” said Alex Sigal with the African Health Research Institute.

The South African variant has three mutations at key sites the virus uses to bind to human receptors, meaning it targets those cells more efficiently.

Thanks to de Oliveira sounding the alarm, British scientists discovered a separate variant sharing one of the same key mutations in their country.

“What is not normal is when one variant dominates across a very large geographic region and that is associated with a fast increase of cases,” said de Oliveira. “That is exactly what we are seeing across South Africa and the UK.”

A Level-3 biosafety lab is growing live versions of the troubling new COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa.

The work is critical to understanding where this pandemic goes next.

The team’s results will help answer whether COVID-19 vaccines will hold up against the variant and its three mutations.

Preliminary results suggest that antibodies from the first wave of infections are less effective against the new variant.

“As somebody with a family and parents, I was very concerned. But for us, this is our job,” said Sigal. “We are here only for one thing and that is to do the research.”

It’s research being done at a record pace, because the consequences of not knowing are all too clear and the costs of the pandemic already too high.

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