SA scientists enable quick detection of fast-spreading coronavirus variants

Leading South African scientists have been participating in the World Health Organization’s Evolution Working Group to monitor and discuss ways of responding to the emergence of new variants of the novel coronavirus across the globe.

The scientists, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), an initiative funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), have been meeting with the world’s top scientists every two weeks to discuss the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 lineages.

Prof. Tulio de Oliveira, Director of KRISP, said the centre has been sequencing SARS‑CoV‑2 genomes locally and sharing its findings.

“On the 4th of December 2020, we described the first 16 genomes of a new variant in the Eastern Cape with unusual mutations on the spike protein,” said Prof. De Olivera. “After this meeting, UK scientists went on to analyse in more detail a fast-growing cluster in south‑east London, and found they had a separate lineage (B.1.177) with a similar mutation that was also spreading very fast.”

He said KRISP was continuing to engage top scientists in South Africa and the UK to answer various questions related to transmissibility, vaccines, diagnostics and pathogenesis.

KRISP has state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and scientific expertise and capacity. This has positioned the centre’s multidisciplinary team to play a critical role in supporting the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The past few weeks have also highlighted the global contribution KRISP is making in tackling the pandemic.

In light of this contribution, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, recently announced that the DSI will fund KRISP to the tune of R25 million over the next 12 months to complete the sequencing of 10 000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes in South Africa and Africa.

The funding will be used to understand the spread of COVID-19 and other virus lineages in the continent and to support clinical and laboratory investigations of genomic variations in the country.

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