“This is indeed good news for all of us and a reflection of good work that has been done by our scientists,” an elated Mkhize said.
Mkhize was speaking during a joint virtual media briefing with the Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, on the latest scientific results on the COVID-19 variant on Tuesday.
Government has been working with local scientists from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Informatics and Sequencing Programme (KRISP).
KRISP is the first in the world to uncover the findings, showing that the 501Y.V2 variant has a number of mutations on its spike protein, increasing the efficacy of the virus to infect humans and posing problems of vaccine escape.
KRISP Director, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, said this means that infected people may have some immunity against the variant even though protection can decrease over time.
“In no way we’re saying these people shouldn’t be vaccinated, we’re saying the opposite. We should try to increase vaccination to avoid the very deadly third wave.”
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ Professor Penny Moore explained how neutralising antibodies from the 501Y.V2 variant are cross-reactive, thereby preventing infection by other variants.
Furthermore, blood antibodies from people infected with 501Y.V2, which has now been detected in almost 50 countries, were able to neutralise not just that variant, but the original variant and the one first identified in Brazil.
“So, what this means is that the neutralising antibodies elicited by the new variant are somehow different and have the ability to not only recognise their own virus but other viruses.”
According to Moore, this is potentially good news.
“It’s not that the antibodies triggered by 501Y.V2 are magical, there’s a drop-off, they do preferentially recognise the virus that infected those people but unlike those triggered by the old variant they seem to have somehow a little more breadth,” she added.
Mkhize commended KRISP and the whole consortium on genomics for the role they played in the fight against COVID-19.
“This is the team that first showed us that the change in the second wave was actually driven by the predominance of the 501Y.V2 variant and that it was more transmissible and of course, it landed with much higher of hospitalisations than before.”
The 501Y.V2 variant became more dominant which became responsible for 99% of the genetic sequence of the viruses causing the second wave.
“They were also able to demonstrate to us that the people who caught the virus from the first variant was not effective in neutralising the second variant. It did shock us to be honest when we found that out and realised that the cases for reinfection were now open and we have seen so many people have succumbed from reinfection,” he recalled.
Mkhize has since called on vaccine manufacturers to target the variant, which was first discovered in South Africa last year.
“When we noticed that the AstraZeneca was able to neutralise the variant in the UK and Brazil and not the one in South Africa… therefore more work needs to be done in this regard.”
Mkhize told journalists that government will now be approaching the vaccination rollout programme currently underway with this new information.
“We believe that South Africans will get vaccines that are best suited to our situation. We need to acknowledge that our unique situation has required us to behave in a particular way and approach issues in a particular way.”
Mkhize thanked Nzimande and his department for supporting the country’s research community.
Meanwhile, he said South Africa has emerged amongst the world leaders in surveillance genomics.
“You’re aware we have a competent team who are part of the Ministerial Advisory Committees linked to a whole network of specialist clinicians and that whole body of knowledge sits behind what decision Cabinet has had to take in a lot of instances.”
“Every time we move, we move on the basis of the latest available scientific research findings,” Mkhize added.
Nzimande said his department was committed to funding genomics studies, which is an important subject to deal with future pandemics.
He has since congratulated all the scientists and their network and paid a special tribute to a PhD student from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Sandile Cele, who has been at the centre of the new discoveries.
“He must be an example and a role model for other younger people who have aspirations to become scientists.”