People enjoy the sun and warm weather at Segur de Calafell beach in Spain, where beta cases are on the rise.
SOPA images | Light Rocket | Getty Images
While the world is busy dealing with further Covid-19 waves caused by the highly contagious delta strain, there are growing concerns in parts of Europe over a ‘beta’ coronavirus strain first discovered in South Africa .
Last week, the UK government announced that anyone traveling to the UK from France will be required to quarantine, even if they have been fully vaccinated, because of concerns about “the continued presence of cases in France of the beta variant”.
France has defended its file, noting that most cases of the beta variant are in the overseas territories of La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, rather than in mainland France.
On Tuesday, French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune described the UK’s measures as “excessive” and on Monday, French Ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna quoted data showing that the beta variant’s cases were declining.
There were previously concerns that Covid vaccines developed in the past year may not be as effective against the beta variant and it could evade antibody drugs.
So is the UK government right to be concerned? CNBC has a rundown of what we know about the beta variant:
What is the beta variant?
As with all viruses, the coronavirus has mutated several times since its emergence in China in late 2019, although some mutations have outweighed others, displacing several previous dominant strains.
For example, the alpha variant first discovered in Kent, England, became globally dominant earlier this year before being appropriated by the delta variant first discovered in India.
Unlike those other “variants of concern” (according to the World Health Organization), the beta variant emerged around the same time as alpha, but failed to take off in the same way, largely confined to South Africa and the surrounding countries where it was first discovered last fall.
Still, cases have been discovered all over the world. The WHO’s latest weekly report on Tuesday found that beta has been detected in 130 countries (and seven new countries in the past week).
Why is it worrisome?
The variant, also commonly known as B.1.351, has several significant mutations in the virus’s spike protein — E484K, K417N, and N501Y — that make it easier for this variant to infect humans and potentially make it more difficult to treat, or prevent with Covid vaccines.
The WHO has stated that the beta variant is associated with increased transmissibility, a possible increased risk of hospital death and that there was evidence that it could neutralize antibodies against Covid.
In its latest weekly report, the WHO cited a Canadian study published in July (but not yet peer-reviewed) that analyzed data from more than 200,000 Covid-19 cases. It found that compared to non-“variants of concern” of Covid, the risks associated with variants containing the N501Y mutation (i.e., the alpha, beta, and gamma variants) were significant and had a much higher risk of hospitalization , intensive care unit. admission and death.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which also classifies beta as a variant of concern and says it is associated with about a 50% increased transmission rate) have noted that lab studies suggest that specific monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective for treating cases of Covid caused by variants with “certain substitutions or combinations of substitutions in the spike protein”, such as the combination of K417N, E484K and N501Y substitutions present in the beta variant.
Do vaccines work against it?
The Covid vaccines currently available and used primarily in the West, such as Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and AstraZeneca-Oxford University, are all largely effective in helping prevent severe Covid infection caused by a handful of variants of concern ( including beta) and have been proven in studies to reduce hospitalizations and deaths.
However, the WHO noted on Tuesday that when it comes to the beta variant, while “protection is maintained against serious disease”, there is “possibly reduced protection against symptomatic disease and infection”.
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School at Britain’s University of Warwick, told CNBC on Wednesday that “we know that the delta variant outperforms beta when it comes to transmissibility, but beta has been hovering for quite some time. the background. for a while.”
“We know it’s better able to withstand the vaccine. And all the data we have on that, especially from South Africa, raises concerns about that.” [the beta variant] vaccines in a population that is only partially vaccinated or unvaccinated.”
The WHO noted that two recent studies in the US and Qatar had provided further evidence of the solid performance of mRNA vaccines (those from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech) against both the alpha and beta variants.
The first, a US study not yet peer-reviewed, found that, when tested against all variants, the overall vaccine effectiveness of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines (after two doses) in preventing hospitalization was 86.9% – although it should be noted that the alpha variant was the most common type (59.7% of sequenced viruses) in the study data.
A second study, from Qatar and published in the journal Nature Medicine on July 9, found that Moderna’s effectiveness against infection of the beta variant was 61.3% after the first dose and 96.4% after the second dose. The effectiveness against any serious, critical or fatal Covid-19 disease due to Covid infection (mainly the alpha and beta variants) was 81.6% and 95.7% after the first and second dose, respectively.
Where is it?
The beta variant is still more common in South Africa and nearby countries, with the increase in the number of cases attributed to the delta variant being much greater. Meanwhile, the US has sequenced 2,231 cases of the beta variant, but none in the past four weeks, according to data from research institute Gisaid, an initiative promoting the sharing of global Covid-19 data.
Gisaid analysis shows that cases of the beta variant have been found in parts of Europe, but are still at a relatively low level compared to the highly transmissible delta variant that has become dominant worldwide.
In the past four weeks, the variant made up 3.7% of virus samples sequenced in France (and 6.9% of samples sequenced in Spain), Gisaid data showed. By comparison, a very small handful of beta cases (less than 15 in total) have been detected in Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and the UK in the past four weeks.
WHO map showing worldwide prevalence of variants
World Health Organisation
In South Africa, the mutation accounted for 5.3% of the sequenced virus samples. Gisaid noted that the data may be biased by sampling and reporting bias and do not represent the exact prevalence of Covid variants.
So, is the UK right to ask arrivals from France to go into quarantine? Young is unconvinced and attributes the move more to “panic” than reason.
“If you look at the current rates of beta infections across Europe, Spain has a much higher rate. Recent data suggests that it is over 20% of positive cases in Spain, while it is about 3.8% in France,” he noted.
“There is a lot of inconsistency and I dare say ‘knee-jerkism’. I don’t see why France was chosen in this way,” he added.