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South Africa hit by virus wave, even though most people have antibodies

Coronavirus infections have increased in South Africa in recent months although research shows that around 98% of the population has some antibodies due to vaccinations, previous infections or both.

The study, published Thursday but not peer-reviewed, analyzed the prevalence rates of the two antibodies among 3,395 blood donors collected in mid-March nationwide to estimate the prevalence. at the national level. It found that at the time, about 87 percent of the population was likely already infected with the coronavirus. About 11% had antibodies, according to the study’s authors, indicating that a person was vaccinated but not recently infected.

But even though the majority of South Africans have antibodies to the virus, many are still infected during the latest wave of the virus, which began in April and was fueled by BA.4 and BA.5, subvariables new by Omicron.

The study provides further evidence of the virus’s ability to evolve and evade immunity, the researchers say.

“All of these antibodies we found don’t offer much protection from infection by pathogens,” said Alex Welte, professor of epidemiology at Stellenbosch University and lead analyst on the study. sub-variables BA.4 and BA.5 of Omicron. .

Anything slightly different about those variations should be enough to overcome some of the body’s defenses, he adds. “At this point, we cannot stop the spread; That’s the way to learn. ”

BA.4 and BA.5 are thought to spread faster than BA.2, which is itself more contagious than the original Omicron variant.

Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler and epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York, said it is possible that the number of people who have been infected with the virus in South Africa could be even higher than 87 per cent, giving know that immune responses vary between individuals.

But he and other scientists not involved in the study say its findings are consistent with a growing body of evidence that the coronavirus has become more adept at re-infecting humans and other outbreaks. outbreaks around the world are likely to continue spreading for the foreseeable future.

Dr Shaman said: “We have to acknowledge the possibility that the number of waves that we have seen over the last few years, it could continue to follow that rhythm.

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform in South Africa, who was not involved in the study, says that the findings are consistent with the epidemiological data. other epidemiological factors to which the majority of South Africans may have been exposed to the virus at the time of the study.

Populations in other countries like the UK also have extremely high levels of antibodies against the virus, he added. However, he said, more variants are likely to continue to emerge around the world, triggering outbreaks of infections even in people with antibodies.

Dr Lessells said: “The virus will continue to evolve so that it can continue to spread in populations. “It’s not over,” he added. “This virus is with us for the rest of the time.”

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