The South African variant-label for the 501Y.V2 mutation that spread across the world is unfair and inaccurate.
One hundred years ago the world experienced a pandemic with a global death toll somewhere between 10 and 40 times what we have experienced from COVID19 so far.
The influenza that caused it was first identified in the United States, and then spread to France, Germany and the United Kingdom. How, then, did these countries avoid being stuck with the responsibility for being the source of the global scourge?
One answer is that the emergence of the disease in these places was covered-up by post-first world war press censorship. Instead, one country with a press free to write about it was Spain; so when it got there they got stuck with the label forevermore: Spanish Flu.
The irony that a key strength of the post-war Spanish system, their free press, resulted in them shouldering responsibility in the public mind for a devastating global pandemic.
This is not unlike what happened in December 2020 as headlines about a “new variant discovered by South African scientists” very soon became a global wave of harrowing headlines about “the South African variant” - a name clearly more suited to tabloid headlines than its essence: 501Y.V2.
Prof Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of South Africa’s Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, has highlighted that there were around 30 different SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating globally before 501Y.V2 was discovered. Viruses change continuously, but if the change gives the virus an advantage, then that variant will become more common.
The pandemic has ushered in a new era of genomic surveillance as a tool for quick public health decision making. Many countries, including several developed countries, do not have effective genomic surveillance systems yet South Africa does.
Our world-class medical capability to conduct regular genomic surveillance led to the breakthrough discovery of 501Y.V2, and brought the world a step closer to understanding the complexities of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and more effective vaccination.
South African virologists, immunologists, vaccinologists, infectious disease specialists and microbiologists are currently working around the clock to better understand 501Y.V2, with knowledge generated being shared globally to inform health responses.
South Africa’s scientists found 501Y.V2 because they were looking. It’s unfair and inaccurate for this discovery to lead to us shouldering responsibility for the variant around the world.
Early in 2020, a group of laboratories, scientists, and academic institutions came together to ensure that the public health responses to COVID-19 in South Africa have access to the best possible scientific data. When the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) was established, their goal was to sequence the genome of at least 10 000 SARS-CoV-2 samples to inform the public health response in South Africa.
A few months later and their work is crucial to informing not only national, but also the global health response.
Despite operating on very limited resources, by being consistent and methodical, the NGS-SA was able to discover 501Y.V2 and raise international alarm bells.
In the same way that Spain was incorrectly blamed for 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and it was inappropriate for Donald Trump to call COVID-19 the Chinese virus, it is inappropriate to talk about the South African, Brazilian or UK variant.
Linking something like this to the name of a country can bring a host of unwarranted and damaging connotations. To be made a pariah for the sake of easy headlines has already had negative repercussions for South African tourism and business, with the cancellation or suspensions of a number of international flights just as our country was emerging from a strict national lockdown in 2020.
In fact, in 2015 the World Health Organisation introduced guidelines to end the practice of associating infectious diseases with the geographies, people or cultures where outbreaks first occurred, precisely because such naming can lead to stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors. Among other things, the WHO said that disease names can result in unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade. Unfortunately, these guidelines did not refer to variants. The good news is that the WHO has convened a working group to devise a single system for the naming of variants. The bad news is that South Africa has already suffered unjustified consequences.
That said, not all national variants are bad news. We’d like to remind you of some South African variants that you really do want in your life:
- Pinotage - a deliciously unique South African red wine grape varietal,
- Methode Cap Classique - the South African variant of Champagne,
- The Cape Floral Kingdom - one of the richest places in the world for plant diversity, more botanically diverse than the Amazon,
- Rooibos tea - our caffeine-free red variant of your cup of black or green tea,
- The Karoo – South Africa’s magnificent semi-desert variant of the Australian Outback,
- Biltong – the better tasting South African variant of beef jerky,
- Braai – the South African variant of a BBQ and the real way to cook your food on a fire.
We’re proud to have given these variants to the world, along with the benefits of our world-class genomic sequencing capabilities.