Mkhize calls for calm as Covid-19 variants of concern are detected
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Johannesburg - Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has allayed fears following the detection of two new Covid-19 variants.
Mkhize said the country's scientists had sequenced a coronavirus test from travellers and 11 cases had come back positive for the B.1.1.7 strain that was first detected in the UK.
Another four cases have tested positive for the B.1.617.2 coronavirus strain first detected in India.
He said all four cases had been isolated and they were detected in patients from Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, all of whom had a history of travel from India.
The most glaring development was that the UK variant had been detected in a sequence from a community transmission. He said this showed that this variant had begun circulating in the country.
Mkhize maintained that citizens should not panic as the country's genomic surveillance would assist in detecting and understanding the variants.
He added that several Covid-19 tests were currently being sequenced to understand which strain they had and the results of these would be known within days.
"We reiterate that there is no need for panic, as the fundamentals of the public health response (testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine) have not changed.
“We all have a responsibility to adhere to prevention measures (avoiding large gatherings, physical distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation and hand sanitation) in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa,” he said.
On whether to restrict travel, Mkhize highlighted that the government was still mulling this action and that it would be guided by science and other measures.
“Travel restrictions will need to be balanced against the scientific realities in order to protect the economy. These findings are urgently being processed by the government and announcements pertaining to travel regulations will be made after all appropriate consultations have been undertaken by the Cabinet,” Mkhize said.
National Institute for Communicable Diseases executive director Professor Adrian Puren said the institute was focusing its resources on understanding the new variants and their impact on South Africa, and it was not surprising that new variants were being detected as this would be inevitable in the life cycle of a virus.
“We understand that many are suffering from Covid-19 fatigue, and becoming lax in exercising preventative measures. But for the sake of yourselves and your loved ones, wash or sanitise your hands, wear your masks and maintain physical distance of 1.5m from others. Remember to hold gatherings outdoors, or in well-ventilated areas and roll up your sleeve once the Covid-19 vaccine becomes available to you,” Puren said.
Concerns over other coronavirus variants have merit as the country's second wave was largely driven by the B.1.351 variant first detected in the country.
The South African Covid-19 Consortium, in its latest modelling, warned that a driver for a third wave to be as harsh as the second wave would likely be driven by a new variant or several other factors.
The consortium has also warned that if a third wave were to hit the country, Gauteng would be largely impacted because this was “due to the higher concentration of working-age adults and people with co-morbidities in the province, and the lower estimates of seroprevalence“.
The consortium said delaying a possible third wave was crucial as this would give the government time to vaccinate citizens.
The country's vaccination programme is expected to kick start later this month.