501Y.V2 – the latest COVID-19 kid on the block
Gone are the days where our referrals to ‘Mutants’ and ‘mutations’ were mostly applicable to the fiction or sci-fi film genre. Nowadays when we speak about mutations and mutants, it is unfortunately COVID related. Over the last two months, there have been a few variants of the current COVID-19 virus that have been detected across the world. The World Health Organisation is the main entity that these variations of the COVID-19 strain are reported to as they “routinely assesses if variants of SARS-CoV-2 result in changes in transmissibility, clinical presentation and severity, or if they impact on countermeasures, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.” One of the mutations responsible for the growing number of reports and corresponding concern is the D614G mutation. This mutation has been detected in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Denmark and now parts of Australia too.
The D614G variant has largely overtaken the original SARS-CoV-2 strain throughout the duration of 2020 due to the fact that it has “increased infectivity and transmission (WHO).” That being said, this particular variant was not linked to more severe symptoms than shown in the transmission of its original counterpart. However, towards the back end of 2020 additional mutations and variations of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) strain were detected in different parts of the world. As originally established at its emergence in China in December 2019, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease which means that it is an ‘infectious disease or virus’ that originates from an animal (non-human) and is then transferred to a human by various means depending on the type of pathogen. In Denmark, the “Cluster 5” variant as it has now been named, was traced back to farmed mink that was then passed onto humans. Thankfully, unlike some of the other COVID-19 variants and mutations since discovered, the “Cluster 5” variant does not seem to have the same level of infectivity and has therefore largely been contained with only 12 humans being diagnosed according to the World Health Organisation.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about some of the more recent variants, including the 501Y.V2 variant recently discovered in South Africa. In December both South Africa and the United Kingdom reported the emergence of new COVID-19 variants with varying effects. In South Africa the variant has been called 501Y.V2 because it is defined by an N501Y mutation. It’s important to note that even though the both the UK and South Africa detected new variants of the COVID-19 virus that both share a mutation of N501Y, they are not the same virus variant and therefore have not been directly passed from one country to another. There are a few key distinctions between the new variations and the COVID-19 that we have come to be so familiar with. In the UK, they have named the new variant SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 which stands for: “Variant of Concern, year 2020, month 12, variant 01.” Much like SA’s 501Y.V2 variant, the UK’s SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 variation has also distinguished itself through a noticeable increase in transmissibility. This essentially means that it has the ability to spread through a population much quicker than COVID-19. In South Africa this has been clearly demonstrated in four specific provinces that have experienced a noticeable spike of the 501Y.V2 variation – namely KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng. This is not entirely unsurprising though as these are already proven COVID hotspots.
While there has been no detected increase in the severity of the symptoms and effects of the new virus variant, that does not mean that it should be taken any less lightly than SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and in fact given it’s infectivity rate – arguably even more caution is required.. The best measures are still the preventative – it is even more important in the second wave to be responsible, practice social distancing as much as possible, wear a mask and keep on sanitising and washing your hands.