Covid-19 variant may protect people against reinfection and other variants, research shows

People who have been infected by the new Covid-19 variant, 501Y.V2 may be better protected against other variants and potentially the old variants. This information brings relief, but researchers warn that many questions are still unanswered and that vaccinations remain essential. 

New scientific results on the 501Y.V2 variant were announced on Wednesday during a joint media briefing by the minister of higher education, science and innovation, Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Informatics and Sequencing Programme.

In South Africa, the 501Y.V2 variant’s proportion of infections grew from 11% in October to 99% of cases in February. The 501Y.V2 variant has been detected in 48 countries. 

Tulio de Oliveira, of the Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa, says that the new findings show “a clear, consistent direction of the variant producing strong antibodies that can neutralise itself and potentially other variants and lineages of the virus”.

But, he says, viruses mutate over time and changes are almost inevitable. 

Penny Moore, also at the genomic surveillance network, says people who have been infected by the new may have “a greater capacity to neutralise other variants than what we have expected and seen before”.

Moore emphasised that this does not necessarily indemnify anyone from getting the virus again. 

 “We have known for a long time that people who are infected develop good antibody responses, but what we don’t know is how long those antibodies last and we don’t know how much antibodies are enough to protect you against reinfection.” 

This is why people still need to be inoculated. 

The latest research findings contribute to the efficacy of vaccines. The genomic surveillance network’s Alex Sigal says a vaccine can be designed with the 501Y.V2 variant and “it might be cross-protective to other variants”.

Mkhize said vaccines should target the bigger problem — the 501Y.V2 variant. 

He said that advances in the area of surveillance genomics help to improve vaccines “so that as we move to the latter part of the year, we should be getting more vaccines that are much more targeted to be able to deal with this variant and the previous ones and perhaps be helpful in dealing with variants in the future”.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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