With the outbreak of the new variant of the Coronavirus pandemic rapidly ravaging the world, scientists are already hard at work trying to understand how it spreads and how deadly it is compared to the original Covid-19.
Leading South African scientists have been roped in to participate in the World Health Organization’s Evolution Working Group to monitor and formulate a response to the emergence of the new variant of the novel coronavirus in the globe.
Scientists have indicated that although the new variant of the virus is highly transmissible it is not virulent allaying fears that it may render redundant the vaccines being rolled out.
The scientists are from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP). They have been meeting with the world’s top scientists every two weeks to discuss the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 lineages. Although KRISP is based at the UKZN, it is primarily funded by the department of science and innovation (DSI).
Director of KRISP, Professor Tulio de Oliveria, said the centre has been sequencing SARS‑CoV‑2 genomes locally and sharing its findings with interested parties.
Said Professor de Oliveria: “On the 4th of December 2020, we described the first 16 genomes of a new variant in the Eastern Cape with unusual mutations on the spike protein.” He said after they met with other scientists, their UK counterparts went on to analyse in more detail a fast-growing cluster in south‑east London. The UK scientists, he said, found they had a separate lineage (B.1.177) with a similar mutation that was also spreading very fast.
Professor de Oliveria added that KRISP was continuing to engage top scientists in South Africa and the UK to answer various questions related to transmissibility, vaccines, diagnostics and pathogenesis.
KRISP boasts state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, scientific expertise and capacity to make it globally competitive. This has positioned the centre’s multi-disciplinary team to play a pivotal role not only in supporting the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic but in other large scale and critical scientific initiatives. The past few weeks have also highlighted the global contribution KRISP is making in tackling the pandemic.
It is this kind contribution that prompted the minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, recently to announce that the DSI will fund KRISP to the tune of R25 million. The funding will be spread over the next 12 months to enable the facility to complete the sequencing of 10 000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and Africa.
According to the DSI, the funding will be used to understand the spread of COVID-19 and other virus lineages in the continent and to support clinical and laboratory investigations of genomic variations in the country.