The WHO has identified three new variants of coronavirus originating in the UK, Brazil, and now in South Africa.
Ever since scientists started tracking the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, it has become a cause for concern that the virus has developed multiple variants.
These newer strains are more contagious and could render vaccine and antibody protection less effective and thereby, spread rapidly across dozens of countries in a short span of time.
The latest South African variant known as 20H/501Y.V2 or B.1.351, is different from the one in Britain and appears to be more infectious than the original virus.
This potentially more concerning variant has been spotted since December 22 last year and emerged independently of B.1.1.7 or the UK variant and shares some mutations with the same.
The South African variant carries a mutation called N501Y that appears to make it more contagious or easy to spread.
South African researchers believe the new strain is around 50 percent more contagious than the previous variants.
The WHO has called for more studies on the new strain and it stressed that observational studies in South Africa did not indicate an increased risk of reinfection.
This South African variant has become a major cause of worry for the scientists because of its unusually large number of mutations, especially in the spike protein.
Notably, the spike protein is also the part of the virus targeted by Covid-19 vaccines and antibody treatments.
Another mutation of the South African variant called E484K, which is not found in the UK strain, is said to help the virus dodge attack by a person’s immune system and hamper the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.
However, there is no evidence that Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved won’t work against the new strain.
Human clinical trials in South Africa suggest decreased efficiency of these vaccines as against the older variants.