Move over B117, Here Comes Another COVID Mutation

January 4, 2021
Frank Diamond

Just how much more serious of a threat South Africa’s 501Y.V2 COVID variant represents has yet to be definitively answered, but British health officials argue that it’s much worse than the UK’s B117.

Just as medical experts seem to be getting a better idea of what we’re facing with B117—a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and that first surfaced in the United Kingdom—another more worrisome variant of the disease surfaces in South Africa. The South African version is called 501Y.V2.

Both seem to be more contagious than the COVID-19 that the world’s been battling for over a year, but indications are that B117 will respond to vaccines and is not deadlier. But as Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of Infection Control Today®’s Editorial Advisory Board points out, the fact that B117 is more infectious means that it will in fact lead to more hospitalizations and higher mortality rates.

B117 has now been spotted in 37 countries altogether, including the United States in Florida, California, and Colorado so far. In response, many countries have issued travel restrictions on planes coming from the UK.

Just how much more serious of a threat South Africa’s 501Y.V2 represents is a question yet to be definitively answered. John Bell, a professor of medicine at Oxford University, told Times Radio (an affiliate of the London Times), that both B117 and 501Y.V2 have different mutations; they are not a single mutation. “And the mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the (virus’ spike) protein,” Bell said.

For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) says for now that 501Y.V2 does not seem to be associated with worse symptoms or outcomes, though the WHO continues to do research on the variant. According to the WHO, 501Y.V2 has been reported in four other countries.

UK experts like Bell, and policy administrators like Health Secretary Matt Hancock are not mincing words: they’re saying that South Africa’s 501Y.V2 variant is much more problematic than the UK’s B117.

“I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant, and that’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa,” Hancock told the BBC’s Today program. “This is a very, very significant problem ... and it’s even more of a problem than the UK new variant.”

These COVID-19 variants arrive at a point when stressed healthcare systems do all they can to manage traditional SARS-CoV-2. In the United States yesterday, 125,544 people were hospitalized because of the disease, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That’s a new single-day record. The number of COVID-related hospitalizations has been more than 100,000 per day for a month.

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University reports that yesterday there were 210,479 new cases of COVID-19. In addition, 1394 people died yesterday from the disease.

In the US, there have been about 20.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far in the pandemic. About 352,000 people have died from the disease in the US.

In the world, there have been over 85 million confirmed cases of COVID-19; while over 1.8 million people have died from the disease.

A lot of hope has been placed in the COVID-19 vaccines, but their rollout hasn’t gone as planned. Healthcare officials wanted at least 20 million people vaccinated by this point. But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have only been about 4.2 million vaccinations.

The CDC says that over 13.7 million vaccine doses have been distributed throughout the country. That’s about 7 million short of the number of COVID vaccine doses that Operation Warp Speed wanted delivered by this point.

So, what’s slowing things up? Well, the New York Times this morning points to three obstacles. As noted, the current surge in COVID is adding more burden to an already overburdened healthcare system. Also, a lot of states that have the vaccines are planning to get them to long-term care facilities first, so that’s holding up distribution as well, according to the times. But as Scott Gottlieb, MD, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration put it in an op-ed he wrote in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend: “A vaccine that’s sitting on a shelf for weeks, waiting for its perfect recipient, doesn’t help snuff out the pandemic.”

Finally, the New York Times reports, the holidays meant fewer staff at hospitals and other healthcare institutions to receive and distribute the vaccines.