People enjoy the sun and the warm weather at the Segur de Calafell Beach in Spain, where beta cases are rising.
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While the world is busy tackling further Covid-19 waves caused by the highly infectious delta variant, there are growing concerns in parts of Europe about a “beta” coronavirus strain first discovered in South Africa.
Last week, the British government announced that anyone traveling to the U.K. from France would have to quarantine even if they were fully vaccinated because it was concerned over “the persistent presence of cases in France of the Beta variant.”
France has defended its case record, noting that most cases of the beta variant are in its overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte which are situated in the Indian Ocean, rather than on mainland France.
On Tuesday, France’s European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune described the U.K. measures as “excessive” and on Monday, France’s Ambassador to the U.K. Catherine Colonna cited data showing cases of the beta variant were declining.
There has previously been concerns that Covid vaccines developed over the last year might not be so effective against the beta variant, and that it could evade antibody drugs.
So is the U.K. government right to be worried? CNBC has the lowdown on what we know about the beta variant:
What is the beta variant?
As with all viruses, the coronavirus has mutated multiple times since its emergence in China in late 2019, although some mutations have been far more significant than others, with several going on to supplant previous dominant strains.
The alpha variant first discovered in Kent, England, for example, became globally dominant earlier this year before it was usurped by the delta variant that was first detected in India.
Unlike those other “variants of concern” (according to the World Health Organization), the beta variant emerged around the same time as alpha did but failed to take off in the same way, being largely confined to South Africa and its surrounding countries where it was first detected last fall.
Nonetheless, there have been cases detected all around the world. The WHO’s latest weekly report on Tuesday showed that beta has been detected in 130 countries (and seven new countries in the last week).
Why is it of concern?
The variant, also known widely as B.1.351, has several significant mutations to the virus’ spike protein —E484K, K417N and N501Y — that make it easier for this variant to infect people, as well as potentially making it harder to treat, or to prevent with Covid vaccines.
The WHO has stated that the beta variant is associated with increased transmissibility, a possible increased risk of in-hospital mortality and that there was evidence it could neutralize antibodies against Covid.
In its latest weekly report, the WHO cited a Canadian study published in July (but not yet peer-reviewed) that had analyzed data from over 200,000 Covid-19 cases. It found that in comparison to non-“variant of concern” strains of Covid, the risks associated with variants containing the N501Y mutation (i.e. the alpha, beta and gamma variants) were significant and carrying a much higher risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit admission and death.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which also classes beta as a variant of concern and says it’s associated with around a 50% increased transmission rate) has noted that lab studies suggest specific monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective for treating cases of Covid caused by variants with “certain substitutions or combinations of substitutions in the spike protein,” such as the combination of K417N, E484K, and N501Y substitutions present in the beta variant.
Do vaccines work against it?
The Covid vaccines currently available and predominantly used in the West, such as Moderna, Pfizer–BioNTech and AstraZeneca-Oxford University, are all largely effective at helping to prevent severe Covid infection caused by the handful of variants of concern (including beta) and are proven in studies to reduce hospitalizations and deaths.
However, the WHO noted on Tuesday that when it comes to the beta variant, while “protection (is) retained against severe disease” there is “possible reduced protection against symptomatic disease and infection.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the Warwick Medical School at the U.K.’s University of Warwick, told CNBC Wednesday that “we know that the delta variant outcompetes beta when it comes to transmissibility, but beta’s been hovering in the background for quite a while.”
“We know it’s more able to resist the vaccine. And all the data we have on that, particularly from South Africa, does raise concerns about that [the beta variant] being able to avoid vaccines in a population that’s only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated.”
The WHO noted that two recent studies in the U.S. and Qatar had provided further evidence of the solid performance of mRNA vaccines (those of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech) against both the alpha and beta variants.
The first, a U.S. study not yet peer-reviewed, found that, tested against all variants, the overall vaccine effectiveness of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines (after two doses) at preventing hospitalization was 86.9% — although it should be noted that the alpha variant was the most common type (59.7% of sequenced viruses) in the study data.
A second study, from Qatar and published in the Nature Medicine journal on July 9, found Moderna’s effectiveness against infection from the beta variant was 61.3% after the first dose and 96.4% after the second dose. Effectiveness against any severe, critical or fatal Covid-19 disease due to any Covid infection (predominantly the alpha and beta variants) was 81.6% and 95.7% after the first and second dose, respectively.
Where is it?
The beta variant is still more prevalent in South Africa and nearby countries, with the rise in cases attributed to the delta variant far higher. Meanwhile, the U.S. has sequenced 2,231 cases of the beta variant but none in the past four weeks, according to data from the Gisaid research institute, an initiative promoting the sharing of global Covid-19 data.
Gisaid analysis shows that cases of the beta variant have been found in pockets of Europe but are still at a relatively low level compared to the highly transmissible delta variant that’s become globally dominant.
In the past four weeks, the variant made up 3.7% of virus samples sequenced in France (and 6.9% of samples sequenced in Spain), Gisaid data showed. A very small handful of beta cases (under 15 in total) have been detected in Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and the U.K. over the last four weeks, for comparison.
WHO’s map showing the global prevalence of variants
World Health Organization
In South Africa, the mutation accounted for 5.3% of virus samples that were sequenced. Gisaid noted that the data can be skewed by sampling and reporting biases and do not represent the exact prevalence of Covid variants, however.
So, is the U.K. right to ask arrivals from France to quarantine? Young isn’t convinced, attributing the move more to “panic” than reason.
“If you look at the current rates of beta infection across Europe then Spain has a much higher rate. Recent data suggests its over 20% of positive cases in Spain whereas it’s around 3.8% in France,” he noted.
“There’s a lot of inconsistency and I dare say, ‘knee-jerkism’. I don’t see why France has been singled out in this way,” he added.