Passenger at Johannesburg Airport (archive photo)
Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko / REUTERS
At the end of December, the federal government imposed entry bans on people who wanted to come to Germany from Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa.
So those responsible hoped for protection against the new types of mutations.
But since Tuesday we have known: The measure probably came too late.
The so-called South Africa mutation of the corona virus has arrived in Germany.
The highly contagious pathogen was discovered in a family who entered Baden-Württemberg from South Africa on December 13, 2020.
Six people from three households in the Zollernalb district south of Tübingen are now affected.
The variant was also detected in a man in Bottrop in North Rhine-Westphalia, tests by the Robert Koch Institute had shown.
He had also visited South Africa.
Mutations in the virus recently worried the experts, but 501.V2 - that's the name of the modified coronavirus that was detected for the first time in Africa - did not seem to play a major role.
The focus was first and foremost on the mutation B.1.1.7.
It was first discovered in Great Britain and Ireland and is currently causing higher infection rates there.
B.1.1.7 had spread in numerous countries; in Germany it was already detected at the end of December.
According to previous knowledge, the R value increases with the mutations, which indicates how many other people an infected person infects.
But since Tuesday, the variant discovered in South Africa has threatened to change the infection rate in this country.
What is known about this mutation?
The government of South Africa reported on December 18 of a new virus variant that is spreading rapidly in the country.
The mutation was discovered by a research team led by South African Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), which has genetically examined many samples since the first cases in the country in March.
British and South African variants are related
Apparently, the variant spread quickly in early November and displaced other virus variants in three provinces, reports the World Health Organization.
It is unclear whether the mutation really first appeared at the Cape.
But the nation is hardest hit by the pandemic in Africa, with almost 35,000 people dead.
The government has currently imposed a curfew in lockdown.
Adhering to the measures is difficult, especially in the townships, where people sometimes live very cramped.
According to doctors from South Africa, more younger people were infected with Sars-CoV-2 than before during the second wave.
In fact, research has shown that both the British and South African variants are more contagious.
The reason for this is a change in the spike protein due to the mutation.
This protein on the virus surface docks onto the host cell and penetrates human cells.
“The epidemiological data we have on the new variants are certainly cause for concern.
Simply because it is a potentially more contagious virus, ”said virologist Isabella Eckerle from the University of Geneva in Switzerland recently to the Science Media Center.
She emphasized that the data are only preliminary, but that action must be taken due to the pandemic situation.
According to previous knowledge, the mutations neither lead to more severe Covid 19 diseases nor do they cause higher death rates.
Still, more people could perish in the long run.
Because because they spread faster and more people get sick, the statistical probability of worse courses also increases.
Epidemiologists fear that health systems could come under greater pressure from these variants.
Both virus variants are related and share mutations in their genetic make-up.
501.V2 seems to be a descendant of B.1.1.7.
The South Africa variant has eight different mutations in the genome.
However, there is one mutation here that worries scientists: E484K.
It may ensure that the antibodies produced by the immune system in those who have recovered are less suitable for the virus and that they can no longer neutralize it to the same extent.
This means that people who have had an infection may find it easier to get infected again.
This is also suggested by a study in which researchers examined why two women in Brazil became infected again with the virus.
Another concern is that vaccines against 501.V2 may not work as well as against other virus variants.
However, vaccine developers like Biontech have seen few problems so far.
Whether the vaccination protection is impaired is currently being investigated.
Even if there were mutations that would make it less effective, the vaccine could be adapted quickly.
However, it is unclear whether such an adjustment will have to go through an approval process by the authorities again (read more here).
Most mutations are harmless
Mutations are random changes in the genome of the virus.
They arise during the replication in the host cells.
This process is ongoing and is part of the virus' natural evolution.
Researchers had already stated at the beginning of the pandemic that such changes in the virus are to be expected.
Thousands of mutations are now known, and often several occur in a virus genome.
Most are unproblematic.
But some give the pathogen an advantage - for example by making it easier to transmit.
And that can mean that such variants spread more widely and prevail over weaker ones.
With around 30,000 bases in single strand form, coronaviruses have the largest genome of all RNA viruses.
The mutation rate of Sars-CoV-2 is rather low compared to other viruses of this type - there are relatively few mutation events per replication cycle.
A special mechanism corrects errors and keeps their number low during duplication.
However, when the infection rate is high, the virus has many more opportunities to change - and that is currently the case.
For this reason alone, researchers are calling for the development of Sars-CoV-2 to be monitored very closely.
“It's important to monitor not just these two variants, but all of them.
You really have to invest in long-term systems and think of the time when the pandemic is over, ”says Eckerle
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