South Africa is struggling to contain a second wave of Covid-19 infections which appears to be driven by a new and more infectious variant of the disease, similar to that in the UK.
According to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy, the new variant, is dominant among new confirmed infections, with higher numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the continent and its scientists are studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the new strain.
“So literally all we know is that we have these mutations. We haven’t done any functional studies, we haven’t done any kind of cohort studies to look really at how this variant might be affecting disease severity, how it might be affecting transmissibility or even virulence of the virus,” Jinal Bhiman at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said.
“The concern is that if you have escape mutations, which these two look like they are, those antibodies won’t be effective. If those antibodies, the old antibodies from people who were previously infected and the antibodies from people who have been vaccinated, are still good, then there is no concern,” he added.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said Monday the new variant is not out of control.
“In the past few days, there have been reports of new variants in South Africa and the United Kingdom,” he said. “Viruses mutate over time; that’s natural and expected. The UK has reported that this new variant transmits more easily, but there is no evidence so far that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality,” he said.
Experts have warned South Africa may see many more cases during the new wave than it experienced in the first wave of the virus.
In response to the resurgence, the government has introduced tougher lockdown restrictions, including limited days and hours for the trade of alcohol and the closure of beaches in hotspot areas.
South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalised with COVID-19, surpassing the previous 8,300 recorded in August. So far a total of 912,477 virus cases have been recorded in the country, including 24,539 deaths.
The New Variant
The BBC reported that the new variant of coronavirus was first detected in September. In November, around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.
The latest figures released on Monday revealed that another 33,364 people in the UK have tested positive for the virus. There were also a further 215 deaths within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the nation’s total to 67,616.
The BBC also reported that top health officials said there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain “was out of control. We have got to get it under control”, admitting that this was “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”, the report said.