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VERIFY: What do we know about the coronavirus strain in South Africa?

Several strains of the coronavirus have developed so far. We asked two experts to explain what we know, and don't know.

WASHINGTON — As we get further into the pandemic, scientists are warning about mutations in the virus. Recently, researchers have discovered a new strain of coronavirus in South Africa.

Question:

What do we know, and not know, about the coronavirus strain found in South Africa?

Answer:

We have information on its transmissibility and level of severe illness, but even that is limited.

Our Sources: 

Epidemiologist Dr. David Dowdy from Johns Hopkins University and Dr. Bob Bollinger, an infectious diseases expert from Johns Hopkins University.

What We Found:

It helps to understand that this is what viruses do: they mutate.

“So every time somebody new gets infected, the virus replicates itself, and can change and mutate,” Dr. Bollinger said.

Here’s what we know about the strain found in South Africa. According to Dr. Bollinger, it looks to be more contagious than the original.

“That's true, not just about the South African variant, but other variants from Brazil and from Britain and other places,” he said.

According to Dr. Dowdy, it does not appear to be more lethal.

“We've seen this in these most recent strains is that these they don't appear to be more deadly or cause more severe illness,” he said.

However, both Dr. Dowdy and Dr. Bollinger said the research is limited. For example, we don’t know how the vaccines will work against it.

“There is some early lab evidence that that raises some concern about the efficacy of the vaccine against or of natural immunity against these, these strains,” Dr. Dowdy said.

As a result, we also don’t know if our current hospital treatments for COVID-19 will work the same.

“Perhaps some of the monoclonal antibody treatments that we're developing may not work as well against this particular strain,” Dr. Bollinger said.

It will take more research to determine the answers, but both experts say not to be too alarmed by the new strains.

“You know, we've been doing this with, as I said, with influenza for decades,” Dr. Bollinger said.

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