South African coronavirus variant may ‘obviate’ antibody drugs, former FDA head says

Though COVID-19 vaccines will likely render effective against the South African coronavirus variant — according to an infectious disease expert — the former head of the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the strain may “obviate” other countermeasures, including antibody drugs.

The South African virus variant, known as 501Y.V2, has sparked serious concern, and the strain has already been described as more infectious than the COVID-19 virus identified at the start of the pandemic. In South Africa, it has rapidly become dominant in the country’s coastal areas.

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Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, told CNBC’s Shepard Smith late Tuesday that the strain appears to escape immunity from convalescent plasma and prior infection.

“The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that may it obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs,” Gottlieb said, pointing to evidence from Bloom Lab.

The variant involves mutations on the spike protein, including E484K, though the laboratory said the changes “reduce neutralization activity, they don’t ablate it.” 

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Gottlieb stressed that prompt vaccination is crucial amid the worrying strain, which has already been identified in Austria, Switzerland, Japan, France, Zambia and the U.K., per a report by CNBC. 

“The vaccine can become a backstop against these variants really getting more of a foothold in the United States but we need to quicken the pace of vaccination,” the former FDA head said.

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A top official with the World Health Organization said Tuesday there’s no indication the virus is more or less transmissible than the separate mutated strain detected in the U.K.

“There’s no indication that the 501Y.V2 variant has increased transmissibility compared to the U.K. variant,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical COVID-19 lead, said during a briefing, noting many ongoing studies in South Africa are looking at the variant’s circulation and transmissibility in modeling and neutralization studies. “But there’s no indication that it’s more or less transmissible than the Variant of Concern that was identified in the United Kingdom.”

That said, Britain’s health secretary on Monday warned that the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa is a “very significant problem” and poses more of a risk than others.

“My concern is that it seems to be even [easier] to transmit than the new variant that we’ve seen here, and obviously it’s been a huge challenge controlling the new variant in the U.K.,” Hancock said, noting two cases of the South African variant were detected in the U.K., as of Monday.

Fox News’ Alexandria Hein and Madeline Farber contributed to this report.