South Africa coronavirus variant: What is the risk?

A new variant of coronavirus circulating in South Africa is now being seen in other countries, including the UK.

Experts are urgently studying it to understand what risk it poses.

What is the new variant?
All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate.

These tiny genetic changes happen as the virus makes new copies of itself to spread and thrive.

Most are inconsequential, and a few can even be harmful to the virus's survival, but some can make it more infectious or threatening to the host - humans.

There are now many thousands of different versions, or variants, of the pandemic virus circulating. But experts' concerns focus on a small number of these.

One is the South African variant called 501.V2.

What do experts say?
The South African variant carries a mutation called E484K, among others.

It's different to another recently discovered variant that scientists have been studying in the UK.

Both the new South African and UK 'Kent' variants appear to be more contagious, which is a problem because tougher restrictions on society may be needed to control the spread.

While changes in the new UK variant are unlikely to harm the effectiveness of current vaccines, there is a chance those in the South African variant may do so to some extent, say scientists.

It is too soon to say for sure, or by how much, until more tests are completed, although it is extremely unlikely the mutations would render vaccines useless.

Scientists have tested the Pfizer Covid vaccine against one of the mutations found in the South African variant, called N501Y, using blood samples from 20 people.

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