What We Know About South Africa's COVID Variant, as Joe Biden Travel Ban Looms

Reports have emerged that President Joe Biden will introduce a ban on most non-U.S. citizens from entering the United States if they have recently been in South Africa over concerns regarding a new COVID-19 variant.

Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters the ban will come into force from Saturday as part of a "suite of measures" designed to "protect Americans" and reduce the risk of new variants spreading and "worsening the current pandemic."

"We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa," Schuchat told Reuters.

CDC officials also told Reuters that the travel ban could be expanded to additional countries if necessary.

The South African variant—known as 501Y.V2—emerged in the country during the second half of 2020 and has now spread to at least 20 nations around the world. Scientists say it is significantly more infectious than the original—perhaps by around 50 percent.

Officials have not yet detected the variant in the United States although Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek earlier this month that it is likely circulating in the country undetected.

Another more infectious variant known as B.1.1.7. that first emerged in the United Kingdom has now been detected in more than 20 U.S. states.

The South African variant was first detected by the country's Network for Genomic Surveillance (NGS-SA.) It has acquired 23 genetic mutations compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus—the pathogen that causes COVID-19.

Significantly, eight of these mutations affect a part of the virus known as the spike protein, which it uses to bind onto and enter human cells—a process that marks the beginning of infection.

Researchers think that the genetic changes to the spike protein of the variant may make it easier for this version of the virus to infect and replicate within its host, which could lead to more rapid spread among people.

South African scientists who helped uncover the new variant wrote in The Conversation that 501Y.V2 has quickly become "dominant" in the country, outcompeting several others that have been circulating. This is strong evidence that the variant is more easily transmissible, they said.

In addition, preliminary research has shown that 501Y.V2 may have the ability to evade antibodies produced by previous COVID-19 infections, which was described as a "cause for concern" by the South African scientists.

But they say more research is needed before the implications for people's immunity against the variant becomes clear given that our immune response involves other components in addition to antibodies.

At this present moment, there is no evidence to suggest that the variant causes more severe disease or higher mortality than others. But again, research is ongoing into this issue.

Scientists initially thought that the B.1.1.7. variant discovered in the U.K. did not cause more severe disease, but some recent evidence has emerged suggesting that it may be linked to higher mortality—although the data is not yet conclusive.

Concerns have also been raised by some scientists that vaccines may not be as effective against the South African variant—an issue which researchers are also currently investigating.

But many experts think the changes are unlikely to render the vaccines completely useless against the variant

"We know that some parts of the spike proteins in the new variant have changed and so the antibodies created by the vaccines may not recognize them as well as before," the South African scientists wrote in The Conversation.

"But it's likely that the vaccine-induced antibodies will also recognize other parts of this target spike protection. In addition, other arms of the immune response induced by vaccines, such as the T cell response, also important in controlling viruses, could also compensate."

On Monday, Moderna announced the results of preliminary research showing its vaccine was effective against B.1.1.7. and 501Y.V2, although the shot appears to be less protective against the South African variant.

As a result, the company said it is developing a booster shot that could be used against the South African variant.

"We're doing it today to be ahead of the curve should we need to," Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna's chief medical officer, told The New York Times. "I think of it as an insurance policy. I don't know if we need it, and I hope we don't."

President Joe Biden at the White House
President Joe Biden speaks during an event on economic crisis in the State Dining Room of the White House January 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. He is introducing a ban on most non-U.S. citizens from entering the United States if they have recently been in South Africa Alex Wong/Getty Images