When it was first detected, the South African variant looked worrisome because of the large number of mutations it had gained, 23 in all, and how many of these were in the critical spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to human cells. That strongly suggested the virus was evolving to avoid antibodies.
Since then, researchers have gathered more alarming clues about 501Y.V2, including from a study that showed that antibodies in blood serum from around 50 people previously infected were frequently unable to block the new variant.
“When you test the blood from people in the first wave [we find] in nearly half the cases there is no recognition of the new variant,” Penny Moore, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said during the same broadcast.
That’s concerning, but vaccinations may elicit a broader, more powerful immunity than a passing infection, so it’s impossible to say they won’t still work. And Moore said that blood from some patients, especially those who’d become very sick, were still able to neutralize the variant, at least in lab tests. “That is important when we think of vaccine, some vaccines elicit very high level of antibodies and others do not,” she said.
Another signal in favor of vaccines is that, so far, there is no clear evidence that the new strain is more likely to re-infect people who’ve had covid-19 before. If natural immunity does in fact hold up, then immunity gained from a vaccine likely would as well. “Are we seeing a systematic increase in reinfection? The data don’t allow us to say,” Karim says. Reinfection could still be prevented, he says, because the body “has two immune mechanisms, B cells that make antibodies, and T cells that go around gobbling things up and killing them.”
Researchers say that laboratory tests alone can’t prove whether vaccines will work against the new variants, and why they hope results from actual ongoing trials of vaccines in South Africa, the UK, and elsewhere may soon give better answers. “We are expecting an answer pretty soon,” Karim says. “But we want to see the actual data, and it is not yet available.”
Scientists are looking at two major possibilities where these variants are coming from. One hypothesis is the virus is evolving inside immune-compromised people, where it can persist for months while learning to dodge the immune system. Another idea is that variations are arising in cities like London, which suffered big infection waves early in 2020. Millions were infected, but if their antibodies waned over the year, then their bodies could be selecting for virus variants able to resist what remains of their immune response.
Some scientists now think that evolved variants are probably cropping up everywhere, not just in Britain and South Africa, but just haven’t been detected yet. “We expect as people increase genomic surveillance, multiple variants will be discovered, especially in places that have had a lot of cases for a long time,” says Tulio de Oliveira, who studies viral genomes at the University of Washington. “Unless we can suppress transmission to almost zero, the virus will keep outsmarting us.”
Scientists say they are fairly sure the variants in South Africa and the UK spread faster, causing about 50% more follow-on infections than the original strain from China. Part of the evidence is how fast the UK variant, called B.1.1.7, has taken hold elsewhere, outcompeting older versions. It already accounts for nearly half of cases in Israel, which is facing a peak in infections despite a big vaccination campaign. The 501Y.V2 variant, meanwhile, has already been seen in at least 10 countries.
SpaceX has successfully landed Starship after flight for the first time
On March 3, SpaceX’s Starship pulled off a successful high-altitude flight—its third in a row. Unlike in the first two missions, the spacecraft stuck the landing. Then, as in the last two, the spacecraft blew up.
What happened: At around 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, the 10th Starship prototype (SN10) was launched from SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, flying about 10 kilometers into the air before falling back down and descending safely to Earth.
About 10 minutes later, the spacecraft blew up, from what appears to have been a methane leak. Still, the actual objectives of the mission were met.
Rocket Lab could be SpaceX’s biggest rival
In the private space industry, it can seem that there’s SpaceX and then there’s everyone else. Only Blue Origin, backed by its own billionaire founder in the person of Jeff Bezos, seems able to command the same degree of attention. And Blue Origin hasn’t even gone beyond suborbital space yet.
Rocket Lab might soon have something to say about that duopoly. The company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Long Beach, California, is second only to SpaceX when it comes to launch frequency—the two are ostensibly the only American companies that regularly go to orbit. Its small flagship Electron rocket has flown 18 times in just under four years and delivered almost 100 satellites into space, with only two failed launches.
On March 1, the company made its ambitions even clearer when it unveiled plans for a new rocket called Neutron. At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, Neutron is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well. The company calls it a “direct alternative” to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“Rocket Lab is one of the success stories among the small launch companies,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are edging into the territory of the larger, more established launch companies now—especially SpaceX.”
That ambition was helped by another bit of news announced on March 1: Rocket Lab’s merger with Vector Acquisition Corporation. Joining forces with a special-purpose acquisition company, a type of company that ostensibly enables another business to go public without an IPO, will allow Rocket Lab to benefit from a massive influx of money that gives it a new valuation of $4.1 billion. Much of that money is going toward development and testing of Neutron, which the company wants to start flying in 2024.
It’s a bit of an about-face for Rocket Lab. CEO Peter Beck had previously been lukewarm about the idea of building a larger rocket that could launch bigger payloads and potentially offer launches for multiple customers at once.
But the satellite market has embraced ride-share missions into orbit, especially given the rise of satellite mega-constellations, which will probably make up most satellites launched into orbit over the next decade. Neutron is capable of taking 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit, which means it could deliver potentially dozens of payloads to orbit at once. As a lighthearted mea culpa, the introductory video for Neutron showed Beck eating his own hat.
Recovering from the SolarWinds hack could take 18 months
SolarWinds Orion, the network management product that was targeted, is used in tens of thousands of corporations and government agencies. Over 17,000 organizations downloaded the infected back door. The hackers were extraordinarily stealthy and specific in targeting, which is why it took so long to catch them—and why it’s taking so long to understand their full impact.
The difficulty of uncovering the extent of the damage was summarized by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in a congressional hearing last week.
“Who knows the entirety of what happened here?” he said. “Right now, the attacker is the only one who knows the entirety of what they did.”
Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security company FireEye, which raised the first alerts about the attack, told Congress that the hackers prioritized stealth above all else.
“Disruption would have been easier than what they did,” he said. “They had focused, disciplined data theft. It’s easier to just delete everything in blunt-force trauma and see what happens. They actually did more work than what it would have taken to go destructive.”
“This has a silver lining”
CISA first heard about a problem when FireEye discovered that it had been hacked and notified the agency. The company regularly works closely with the US government, and although it wasn’t legally obligated to tell anyone about the hack, it quickly shared news of the compromise with sensitive corporate networks.
It was Microsoft that told the US government federal networks had been compromised. The company shared that information with Wales on December 11, he said in an interview. Microsoft observed the hackers breaking into the Microsoft 365 cloud that is used by many government agencies. A day later, FireEye informed CISA of the back door in SolarWinds, a little-known but extremely widespread and powerful tool.
This signaled that the scale of the hack could be enormous. CISA’s investigators ended up working straight through the holidays to help agencies hunt for the hackers in their networks.
These efforts were made even more complicated because Wales had only just taken over at the agency: days earlier, former director Chris Krebs had been fired by Donald Trump for repeatedly debunking White House disinformation about a stolen election.