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Coronavirus Variant in South Africa Sparks Fear of Faster Spread, Possible Reinfection


#South #African doctors and researchers battling a second wave of #Covid-19 cases are racing to understand what role a new coronavirus variant might play in the new surge of infections.

#Total confirmed cases of #Covid-19 in #South #Africa passed one million this week. #On #Wednesday, the country of 60 million recorded 17,710 new infections, higher than any daily case load seen during its first wave of infections, which peaked in #July.

#Doctors say they have to ration oxygen and lack the manpower to do best-practice care, such as turning patients on their bellies. #One-third of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, suggesting that the true number of infections is likely much higher.

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#South #African researchers in #November first discovered the new coronavirus variant—which shows similarities to a variant found in #December in the U.K.— and it quickly became dominant in the country’s coronavirus hot spots. The researchers say the #South #African variant has the same mutation that U.K. scientists say might have made the variant there significantly more contagious than other versions of the virus.

#South #African researchers say they also have found changes in the virus’s structure that, in earlier laboratory tests, led to increased resistance to antibodies from people who recovered from #Covid-19.

#However, researchers said human behavior is still the main reason for the new surge in #Covid-19 cases. #Millions of #South #Africans have traveled in recent weeks to see family across the country, while tens of thousands have crowded into restaurants, bars and beaches during a festive season that overlaps with the country’s main summer holiday.

#South #Africa’s daily confirmed #Covid-19 cases, seven-day rolling average

#Source: #Johns #Hopkins CSSE

“It’s likely that the variant is playing a very small role” in the recent surge in infections in #South #Africa, said #Jinal #Bhiman, the principal medical scientist at the #National #Institute for #Communicable #Diseases in #Johannesburg, who has been studying the new variant. #But, #Dr. #Bhiman said, “it could also be a perfect storm.”

#Several countries have banned travel to and from #South #Africa over concerns about the new variant spreading. #In the past week, laboratories in #Finland, the U.K., #Japan, #Australia and #Switzerland have found the #South #African variant in coronavirus tests conducted there. #Researchers in neighboring #Zambia said #Wednesday the #South #African variant now also appears to be the dominant virus there.

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#It is unclear whether the mutations could affect the efficacy of #Covid-19 vaccines.

#Richard #Lessells,

an infectious-disease specialist at the #KwaZulu-Natal #Research #Innovation and #Sequencing #Platform, or KRISP—the group of scientists who sequenced the #South #African variant—said its discovery has coincided with another worrying development: #Doctors are reporting more patients, including health-care workers, who are testing positive for #Covid-19 a second time, after having had it in the first wave.

“We are genuinely concerned, and that’s why we need to do the research to understand this variant as quickly as we can,” said #Dr. #Lessells.

#Dr. #Lessells and doctors treating #Covid-19 patients in #South #Africa said they haven’t been able to prove whether these repeat positive tests are genuine reinfections—which many scientists have believed are exceedingly rare—or the resurgence of an earlier illness. #South #Africa’s public health-care system generally tests only people who have #Covid-19 symptoms.

#Complicating matters, most #South #African labs don’t store coronavirus testing samples longer than a few weeks, which means it is almost impossible to check whether a new infection stems from a different variant of the virus.

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#Overworked health-care workers are at high risk of getting #Covid-19 a second time, because of their exposure to sick patients and because stress may weaken their immune systems.

A liquor store in #Johannesburg was closed on #Tuesday in a week when #South #Africa recorded its one-millionth case of #Covid-19.


#Photo:

phill magakoe / #Agence #France-Presse / #Getty #Images

“What we’re looking at is a very dark box here, where no one understands what’s in it,” said

#John #Black,

who heads the infectious-diseases division at #Livingstone #Hospital in #Port #Elizabeth, the city hit hardest by #South #Africa’s second wave. #Dr. #Black said he has seen a small number of his patients testing positive again, more than three months after their first positive test.

#At #Tygerberg #Hospital, the main public hospital treating coronavirus patients in #Cape #Town, doctors are seeing both patients and health-care workers testing positive again within three months of a previous infection, a spokeswoman said. #What doctors don’t know, she said, is whether these repeat positives are due to true reinfections, or to some people carrying the virus for a longer time. #Health officials are currently checking if they can isolate the new variant from the new testing samples, the spokeswoman said.

#One intern doctor at another public hospital in #Cape #Town interviewed by The #Wall #Street #Journal said four of her fellow interns had recently tested positive for a second time, after getting #Covid-19 early in the first wave. #Another doctor at a maternity hospital in another #South #African hot spot said she herself tested positive again this week after suffering #Covid-19 symptoms for a second time since #August.

A document setting out a new coronavirus testing strategy circulated #Tuesday by the government of #South #Africa’s #Western #Cape province—one of the regions where the new variant is now believed to be dominant—warned of the risk of people catching #Covid-19 for a second time.

“Concerns about its higher likelihood of transmissibility and its possible resistance to neutralizing antibodies, suggests that a second infection with #Covid-19 might be more likely than previously predicted,” the document, which has been viewed by the #Journal, says.

#Doctors in #South #Africa don’t know whether repeat positive test results are due to reinfection or to people carrying the virus for longer periods; a mobile testing unit at O.R #Tambo #International #Airport on #Wednesday.


#Photo:

luca sola / #Agence #France-Presse / #Getty #Images

The document says people who show #Covid-19 symptoms for a second time after recovering from a previous infection should be tested again after 30 days, rather than waiting the 90 days previously advised. #It says those people who test positive again should also receive an antibody test to confirm whether they have a true second infection, because an antibody test can indicate whether a patient is acutely infected or whether antibodies stem from an older illness.

#Meanwhile, #South #African researchers are growing a live version of the new virus, which will be used to test how the new variant responds to blood drawn from people who have recovered from a #Covid-19 infection and from people who received a #Covid-19 vaccine. “We should know more in a week or so,” #Dr. #Bhiman said.

#Like the U.K. variant, the #South #African variant has an unusually high number of mutations, including eight on the spike protein through which the virus attaches to and infects human cells. #One of these mutations, dubbed 501Y, is the same mutation that scientists in the U.K. have said may be making the variant more contagious.

#Another, dubbed E484K, has shown in lab tests to increase resistance to lab-made antibodies and serum from the blood of recovered #Covid-19 patients, #Dr. #Lessells said.

“The mutation is probably changing the formation of the protein so that the antibodies can’t get a good grip on it,” #Dr. #Lessells said. #But even if more advanced tests on the live virus confirm the antibody resistance, he added, #Covid-19 vaccines should trigger a broader immune response that goes beyond antibodies.

#Dr. #Lessells and other researchers also stressed that measures such as wearing masks and social distancing will still stop the spread of the new variant.

#South #African researchers believe the new variant likely originated in the coastal city of #Port #Elizabeth, which was hit hard by both the first and second wave of infections. #One theory is that the unusually large number of mutations might have been triggered by a long-lasting infection suffered by an immunocompromised person, such as a patient undergoing chemotherapy.

“There is strong evidence that this new variant arose due to immune pressure,” said #Dr. #Bhiman.

#Port #Elizabeth and other regions where the new variant is now believed to be dominant had a high number of people with antibodies as a result of earlier coronavirus infections during the first wave. #This, #Dr. #Bhiman said, might have contributed to making the new variant dominant over variants of the virus that lack these mutations.

#Write to #Gabriele #Steinhauser at [email protected] and #Benjamin #Katz at [email protected]

#Copyright ©2020 #Dow #Jones & #Company, #Inc. #All #Rights #Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



[ source link ]
https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-variant-in-south-africa-sparks-fear-of-faster-spread-possible-reinfection-11609358056

##Coronavirus ##Variant ##South ##Africa ##Sparks ##Fear ##Faster ##Spread ##Reinfection

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