‘We don’t know how vaccine evasive this variant might be’ – immunology expert on new South African variant

The concern regarding the new Covid-19 variant in Southern Africa is that it is not known how “vaccine evasive” this variant might be, a professor of immunology has said.

rofessor at DCU, Christine Loscher, said one of the concerning factors about this variant is the number of mutations it has.

“I think the concern is because we don’t know as much as we’d like to know so far. One of the key things I think that’s concerning is the fact that there’s a much higher number of mutations in this variant than we’ve seen before.

“There’s a lot of mutations in the spike protein which our vaccines target in terms of making antibodies.

“The concern is that we don’t know quite yet how vaccine evasive this variant might be. It’s very much a watch and wait in terms of waiting for some scientist to understand a bit more about the impact of these mutations,” she told Morning Ireland on RTÉ.

The variant, which has been detected in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong thus far, may be more transmissible than the Delta variant.

Prof Loscher said she would not be surprised if the World Health Organisation (WHO) switched it from a variant of interest to a “variant of concern” in the coming days.

“We do know that one of the mutations it does have is similar to Alpha and Delta which made it more transmissible and that’s also of concern that it might spread quite quickly. This has become dominant in a small number of cases very quickly and that is the concern.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the WHO switched it from a variant of interest to variant of concern in the coming days.

“I would say that we’re going to have some information in the coming weeks. We’ll be looking at how good are the neutralising antibodies to the spike protein against this variant.

“The other important thing to say is the vaccine companies have been able to tweak vaccines to become more specific for variants as they arrive so that’s a positive thing to know in the background,” she said.

Prof Loscher said parents should be provided with guidance on the r,new ecommendation of mask wearing for children over the age of nine.

“There’s no doubt that mask wearing does reduce transmission and can be a very effective tool in indoor settings. I think that we’re talking about a group of children where implementation of any recommendation around mask wearing is going to pose a challenge.

“I would like to see that there’s a recommendation and guidance to parents on the benefits of mask wearing and to recommend that they can wear mask in schools if they’re able and if they’re comfortable with that. I would not like to see it mandated but there are benefits to wearing mask and as a parent you weigh up those benefits to your child,” she said.

Prof Loscher said there is a “huge” advantage to children in being vaccinated.

“There are two benefits to vaccinating children, the first one is we’ve a learnt a lot more about this virus over the last year and we’re starting to see a lot of data come through from the UK and the US where we’re seeing long lasting symptoms in children for up to two and four months afterwards.

“The impact on children is not just about the clinical impact it’s the impact on their education and not being able to socialise.

“I would say there is a huge advantage to children in being vaccinated because we don’t know whether other variants are going to arrive that are more damaging,” she said.

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