The South African variant of COVID-19 found in Australia for the first time may spread more easily than other strains, experts say.
However, the jury is still out on whether the new variant, known as 501.V2, is more infectious than other strains or is simply spreading more based on people’s behaviour.
A returning traveller who tested positive to the virus in a Queensland hotel quarantine facility on December 22 was found to have the strain, prompting state chief health officer Dr Jeanette Young to label the development “extremely concerning”.
But Australian National University infectious disease expert Professor Peter Collignon said the South African variant, which has also been identified in some COVID-19 cases in the UK recently, was not cause for panic yet.
Professor Collignon said although the number of overseas cases seemed to be increasing, it was not entirely clear whether the strain appeared more deadly.
“The available evidence is that it does appear to be spreading a bit faster, but it’s not all untangled. And some of it can be due not so much to the behaviour of the virus but the behaviour of people,” he said.
“For instance, one of the thoughts in the UK is yes, it’s more common now, but that’s because before in November and December, people were out and about Christmas shopping more and particularly younger people. So there may be explanations on people’s movements as much as on the virus.
“Basically, we don’t have all the answers yet. In my view the amount of panic that seems to be induced by this new strain doesn’t appear to be proportionate to the new data.”
Professor Collignon also said there was no evidence to suggest the strain wouldn’t respond to the vaccine.
It will take weeks to know if the strain is spreading faster in places like the US and the rest of Europe.
“If it becomes the predominant strain there very quickly, then that would suggest it’s spreading much faster,” he said.
“I don’t think we have to push any panic buttons yet.
“We know how to stop it spreading and we have vaccines which look to be quite efficacious. We need to keep on doing what we have been doing and do it a bit better.”
Professor Marc Pellegrini, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, agreed there was still uncertainty about whether the virus was more infectious or just coincidentally spreading more because of the second wave across many countries.
“In all likelihood it probably is a virus that spreads a little bit better but exactly how much better we don’t know,” he said.
“But what is reasonably clear is that none of these new strains seem to be more apt at making people sick or ill or causing more disease.
“If anything, they might have a better propensity to spread, but certainly that hasn’t been tested properly in the laboratory yet.”
Professor Pellegrini said many issues contributed to viral spread, with human behaviour one of the major things, and we shouldn’t just be focusing on viral strains.
“At the end of the day, if everyone stayed in isolation and did what they’re meant to do, the virus would in actual fact be extinguished if we’re blocking transmission. By huddling together and being in close proximity and not wearing masks, all of these things contribute to the virus being able to spread,” he said.