The recent SARS-CoV-2 virus variant in South Africa (B.1.351) underscores a critical weakness in combatting the COVID-19 epidemic and may prolong it indefinitely, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.
South Africa made headlines when it announced that it would be suspending AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine (AZD1222). The vaccine’s efficacy was below 25% in South Africa and did not meet the minimum international standards for emergency use. This news came on the same day a World Health Organization (WHO) panel met to recommend its use, citing 63% efficacy, according to a guidance document on the AZD1222 vaccine released on February 10, 2021.
Walter Gabriel, MPH, Epidemiologist at GlobalData, comments: “AstraZeneca’s reduced efficacy in South Africa may reflect that over 90% of cases in South Africa are the B.1.351 variant, which suggests that the South African variant can effectively evade neutralizing antibodies produced by the AZD1222 vaccine. While other vaccines may be effective against this strain, it does not exclude the possibility that such efficacy may not be the case for future strains.”
It may take years for most of the world’s population to get vaccinated, making future mutations more likely due to the large global prevalence already. This could prolong the epidemic into an endemic (much like the flu) as herd immunity will be difficult, if not impossible, to reach without properly working vaccines.
Gabriel adds: “The only way to prevent the virus from mutating is by preventing infection altogether. Otherwise, the need for future booster shots may become exceedingly likely to prevent future variants from infecting individuals.”