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The ‘New’ SARS-CoV-2 Variant

11/26/2021

We awoke this morning to the news that a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID has been characterized in South Africa. This variant designated Strain B.1.1.529 with at least 30 mutations of the spike protein may or may not be more pathogenic but is obviously as infectious or even more so than the predominant Delta strain. The most important question is whether protection stimulated by two doses of mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) will provide protection against infection with or without clinical signs. Based on international experience, the Delta strain is capable of infecting those vaccinated, albeit at a lower level and with quantitatively less production and dissemination of virus. This effectively reduces workplace and community spread of COVID. Data shows that non-vaccinated individuals have a ten to twentyfold probability of being hospitalized or dying especially with co-morbidities, as compared to those who are fully vaccinated

 

The emergence of a new strain of SARS-CoV-2, irrespective of characteristics was inevitable and was widely predicted.  The probability of a variant emerging and spreading is a function of the proportion of susceptible individuals in a population.  The vaccination rates for the continent of Africa suggest that COVID is not controlled and serves as an incubator for variants. Only one percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is immunized. Only one percent of the 2.7 billion doses of all COVID vaccines of all types have been administered to Africans. South Africa, the most advanced nation on the Continent has achieved a 35 percent administration rate among the 55 million population but with vaccines of inferior antigenicity to the two approved mRNA vaccines deployed in the U.S. The restraint to control in South Africa is independent of cost and availability of vaccines. Due to poor planning, ineffective logistics, and downright governmental incompetence, South Africa is currently administering vaccine to only 100,000 residents per day with an aging stock of 17 million doses that should be deployed to avert a catastrophe.

 

The immediate response to the news from South Africa was a 900-point plunge on the Dow index with travel, entertainment, financial and oil-related stocks disproportionally affected. This reflects the specter of shutdowns and  deterioration in the economy after signs of restoration to pre-COVID normality.  The situation in South Africa should reinforce the sound advice from the NIH, the CDC and prominent epidemiologists in academia concerning control measures. The U.S. should immediately intensify efforts in the following areas:-

 

  • Raise vaccination rates. Some counties in the U.S. have populations that are as susceptible as those in South Africa. This is due to misinformation, politicization and the misplaced concept of ‘freedom’.  A reading of the Constitution does not indicate any right to infect one’s fellow citizens.
  • Increase the rate of vaccine administration to residents of third-World nations. Unless COVID can be suppressed on an international basis industrialized nations will remain vulnerable.

 

  • Health authorities in the U.S. must intensify sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 isolates to identify emerging mutations that can represent enhanced infectivity and pathogenicity.

 

  • Commonsense protective measures to prevent transmission include masking, avoiding concentration in confined spaces and maintaining social distancing.

 

  • Home testing kits applying lateral immuno-flow technology should be widely available and subsidized to allow infected but asymptomatic or mildly affected individuals to self-quarantine.

 

  • The anti-vax lies and misinformation spread by COVID-deniers and pseudo-experts and those profiting from anxiety should be vigorously opposed. A coordinated publicity campaign involving sports and entertainment personalities, civic and religious and industry leaders, scientists, public health authorities and responsible media is required.

 

Those opposing scientific measures to control COVID including politicians on both sides of the aisle, operators of social media platforms, anti-vax pundits and charlatans have blood on their hands. The new variant is a wake-up call for the U.S. and other industrialized nations. If we wish to restore our pre-COVID way of life and economy now is the time for resolute action.