A general overview of South African COVID-19 Variant B.1.351


Ilmie Xhaferi

The PV Student Publication has partnered with The Research Club to publish a series of research essays entitled “The Research Publications.” The third research essay discusses B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant and its prevalence in African countries. This paper is written by junior Ben Carter.

Ben Carter

(Editor’s Note: The PV Student Publication has partnered with The Research Club to publish a series of research essays related to topics of COVID-19. All research essays are written and fact-checked by members of the Research Club, and The PV Student Publication is rolling out these essays as a service to our community. The third essay discusses B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant and its prevalence in African countries. This paper is written by junior Ben Carter, fact-checked by junior Leah Glasser, and edited by senior Elise Schicker.)

As much of the world is lifting some of the many restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19(Sars-CoV-2), new variants of the virus are emerging and causing concern amongst public health authorities. COVID-19 variants are copies of the original Sars-CoV-2 virus that have accumulated enough mutations to be considered genetically different. Much conversation has been generated about them because they are novel– scientists do not know much about how they behave yet. 

In addition to the widely discussed B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant emerging in the United Kingdom[1], the B.1.351 South African COVID-19 variant is becoming increasingly prevalent in some countries in Africa, such as South Africa and Zambia[2]. It is already present at some capacity in over 40 countries around the world[4]. According to numerous studies into developing COVID-19 variants, new variants emerge because when the virus reproduces, it makes countless copies of itself which all differ slightly from one another[3]. This can occasionally go to an extreme and cause an entirely new variant of the virus, such as variant B.1.351, which is believed to have emerged in South Africa around October of 2020[1]. What’s dangerous about these variants is that they may have enhanced transmission rates compared to the original Sars-CoV-2 virus, or, in some cases, maybe more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines. This can be observed through data collected in South Africa in the final months of 2020 as variant B.1.351 quickly began to make up the majority of South African COVID-19 cases[4]

To understand emerging variants of COVID-19, such as variant B.1.351, it’s critical to note the differences between each variant and the original Sars-CoV-2 virus. Variant B.1.351 is genetically similar to the original Sars-CoV-2 virus. It has very minute differences, mostly focused on the virus’s spike proteins, which in this case serve a very important purpose. COVID-19 utilizes these spike proteins to attach to cells in humans and other animals. These spikes act as hooks to attach the virus to a cell’s receptor proteins and infect that organism with COVID-19. This makes these spikes a prime target for emerging COVID-19 vaccines as a change in the structure of even a few of these spikes can drastically alter the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines[5]. Thus, all current COVID-19 vaccines work in some part by altering the functionality of the spikes of the COVID-19 virus. 

Though there are numerous differences between the original COVID-19 virus and variant B.1.351, the most important changes occur in the spike proteins, especially concerning spike protein mutations K417N, E484K, and N501Y[1]. Out of these alterations, mutation E484K has proven to be the most concerning. It is believed that mutation E484K lessens the effectiveness of all current COVID-19 vaccines by limiting antibody binding to the Sars-CoV-2 cells[2]. This is very concerning as currently there are no options to combat COVID-19 that do not in some way rely on the attachment of antibodies to the Sars-CoV-2 cells. Though this may be true, most current vaccines still have high efficacy rates against COVID-19 variant B.1.351[3] and there is currently no evidence that this variant has an impact on disease severity or mortality rate in infected persons[1]. There is, however, growing evidence that the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant has a much higher transmission rate than the original COVID-19 virus[2]

Studies focusing on the spread of the B.1.351 variant of COVID-19 have been largely conducted in South Africa and Zambia, where this variant quickly rose to become the most prominent strain of COVID-19[4]. One of these studies focused on the spread of variant B.1.351 in Zambia, which quickly became a host. This was most likely due to shared commerce and tourism linkages with South Africa[2]. This study revealed a more than 16-fold increase in COVID-19 cases between December 1st and 10th, 2020 and Jan 1st and 10th, 2021, right as variant B.1.351 began to spread in Zambia. The study led researchers to the conclusion that variant B.1.351 spreads far more easily than the original Sars-CoV-2 virus[4]. This may be a cause for concern in many countries around the world, especially when considering the lessened efficacy rate of COVID-19 vaccines against this variant. They may be next for this almost hyperbolic increase in COVID-19 cases.

Though this information may seem to lead to a conclusion of impending global doom, that is not necessarily the case. The widespread relevance of Sars-CoV-2 variant B.1.351 has been somewhat contained in South Africa and Zambia, which has given the rest of the world a chance to study the virus and learn the best ways of protecting against future variants. Fortunately, there is currently no evidence whatsoever leading researchers to believe that this variant worsens disease severity in infected persons[1].