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Coronavirus update: Variant concerns rising globally as spread grows in US

Health experts are increasingly concerned about the coronavirus variant that originated in South Africa, known as B.1.351, as it shows the ability to weaken vaccine protection from all companies’ candidates to date.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca (AZN) has hit another speed bump from a pause in rolling out its COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa, according to reports.

“I think we just need to maybe suspend use of AstraZeneca, but investigate it more fully to see if we can utilize it more effectively,” said Professor Barry Schoub, chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee in South Africa, in a Sunday briefing.

Instead, the country will roll out Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) vaccine, though it has not been authorized yet, to health care workers. Both J&J and Pfizer (PFE)/BioNTech (BNTX) have applied for emergency use in South Africa.

Oxford University, which developed the vaccine, said in a statement Sunday it remains unclear if the vaccine prevents severe infections and death. Oxford scientists note that because J&J’s vaccine is made from a similar technology — adenoviral vector— and showed protection against the strain, they remain confident about continuing to use it.

Shabir Madhi, chief investigator on the trial in South Africa, said, “Recent data from a study in South Africa sponsored by Janssen which assessed moderate to severe disease, rather than mild disease, using a similar viral vector, indicated that protection against these important disease endpoints was preserved.”

The U.K., which has also seen B.1.351, as well as a domestic variant, B.1.1.7, spread through the country, has continue to vaccinate with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Meanwhile, French health officials backed the vaccine Monday, saying that the halt in South Africa was only temporary and that there was no evidence the vaccine did not protect against severe illness or death.

Oxford officials noted efforts are under way to produce a variant-specific vaccine booster.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford added, “This is the same issue that is faced by all of the vaccine developers, and we will continue to monitor the emergence of new variants that arise in readiness for a future strain change.”

Strains surging

In the U.S., variants remain a small percentage of sequenced cases, but are showing signs of growth. After beginning with 56 cases at the start of January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows a more than 690 cases of the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7), six cases of the South African (B.1.351) and three cases of the Brazilian (P.1) variant.

The preprint of recent study of cases sequenced in 10 U.S. states, and cases in California and Florida, show the U.K. strain is 35% to 46% more transmissible, and is doubling every week and a half. Experts have warned it could be the dominant strain in the U.S., compared to the original strain from Wuhan, by March or April.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, also showed that extrapolating the data to apply to the populations showed the U.K. variant accounted for 2% of cases in both the U.S. states combined and in California alone, while it likely accounts for 4.5% of cases in Florida.

The U.S. continues to lag other countries in genetic sequencing, which means that even though results fall in line with what is being experienced in Europe, it is hard to accurately track or predict the variant’s movements in the U.S.

“Obtaining accurate estimates of the prevalence of B.1.1.7 across the country is complicated by uneven and biased sampling, combined with a lack of a national (coronavirus) genomics surveillance program, like those implemented in the U.K., Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, among other places,” the study authors wrote.

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