Deadlier coronavirus variant in South Africa — what you should know

South Africa’s acting Minister of Health, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, confirmed in a media briefing today that the Delta variant of the coronavirus has become dominant in Gauteng.

The Delta variant was first detected in India and quickly overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system.

It was therefore concerning when South African scientists discovered that the Delta variant had swept South Africa.

This is because the Delta variant is more transmissible than the Beta variant, meaning it is more infectious and spreads faster.

Initial indications are also that the Delta variant may be more virulent, causing more severe symptoms in those who are infected.

Together, increased transmissibility and virulence makes the Delta variant deadlier than the Beta mutation, which was first detected in South Africa and was the dominant variant in the country until now.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) stated that it has been performing genomic surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 and summarised the following key points about the variant.

  • Beta was 25% more transmissible than the original coronavirus; Delta is 97% more transmissible than the original lineage.
  • Vaccines are still highly effective in preventing severe illness, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine displaying 96% effectiveness against hospitalisation with Delta variant after two doses.
  • Reinfection with Delta is possible following a Beta infection because the individual’s antibody levels may have waned.
  • Current PCR tests can detect the Delta variant.
  • Limited data is currently available on whether different symptoms result following Delta infection.
  • Preliminary data from the UK suggests that the Delta variant may cause more severe illness.

This morning, the good news from South Africa’s scientists was that the vaccines currently in use in the country — Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech — are effective against the Delta variant.

Professor Penny Moore (pictured in the title image), research chair of virus-host dynamics at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that the data currently shows that the vaccines provide a stronger immune response to the Delta variant than the Beta variant.

During the same media briefing, Professor Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), presented data from South Africa’s Sisonke study.

Professor Glenda Gray
Professor Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC)

This showed that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine performed better against the Delta variant than the Beta variant.

Furthermore, the immune response generated by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine matures over time, giving better protection against the Beta and Delta variants several weeks after the shot was administered.

Gray said that based on the data from the studies and lab tests, the SAMRC recommends that it is not yet necessary for healthcare professionals to boost the Johnson & Johnson shot.

The data also shows that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine works just as well as the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine even eight months after being administered.

Gray said that they need to keep following up with participants to see when the immune response from the vaccine starts to fade.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works well in South Africa with the difficult Beta variant,” Gray stated.

“It also provides good, immediate, and sustained immune response against Delta and surprising durability against the Delta variant right up until eight months.”

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Deadlier coronavirus variant in South Africa — what you should know