Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)

SA records another 498 Covid-19 deaths as scientists probe variants

By IOL Time of article published Jan 23, 2021

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By Lou-Anne Daniels and Amélie Bottollier-DePois

The number of positive Covid-19 cases in South Africa has increased by 12 271 to 1 404 839, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Saturday.

Over the past 24 hours, a further 498 deaths have been recorded, bringing the death toll in the country since the start of the pandemic to 40 574.

At 28 359, Gauteng currently has the highest number of active Covid-19 cases, with the Western Cape following closely at 26 480 active cases.

The province with the lowest number of active cases is the Eastern Cape with 4 347. The province’s Nelson Mandela Bay was declared a hotspot ahead of the festive season

Deaths and recoveries

Of the 498 deaths announced by Mkhize on Saturday, 201 were from Gauteng, 125 from KwaZulu-Natal, 71 from the Western Cape, 45 from the Free State, 19 from Limpopo, 18 from Mpumalanga and two from the Northern Cape.

To date, 217 492 people have recovered from the disease, putting the country’s recovery rate at 86,6 percent, Mkhize said.


The number of tests conducted now stands at 7 947 007, with 64 143 carried out in the past 24 hours, according to the minister.

Virus mutations down to chance?

The emergence of several, more infectious strains of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has worried governments and scientists, who are investigating how and why the virus became more transmissible.

Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 mutates in order to maximise its survival chances.

When it replicates, tiny errors in its genetic coding are introduced.

Most of these are inconsequential. But some - as with the virus variants that emerged recently in Britain, South Africa and Brazil -- can give the virus a decisive new advantage.

"When we keep case numbers high, we are maximising the virus's opportunities to get into weird situations, that might be rare, and most of them might lead nowhere," said Emma Hodcroft, epidemiologist at the University of Bern.

More cases equal more transmissions, which maximises the chances that a significant mutation will occur, she said.

"If we keep case numbers lower, we essentially restrict the virus's playground."

Wendy Barclay, a virologist at London's Imperial College, said mutations were a result of several factors.

"It's a combination of how much virus is out there, the number of times you roll the dice defines what happen, coupled with the environment the virus is currently in," she said.

It was not unexpected for the new variants to appear after a year of Covid-19 as levels of global immunity increase through vaccinations and natural infection, she added.

"In South Africa and Brazil there was already quite a high level of antibody response from people who had been infected and recovered from the virus."

Other experts expressed doubt that immunity levels directly influenced the current mutations.

Bjorn Meyer, a virologist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, said it was more likely each mutation occurred in a single individual, who then passed it on to others.

He explained the possibility of a patient whose immune system was compromised, and therefore unable to clear the virus as quick as others.

"In this patient there might be something defective in the response so the virus can just stay around for a long time," Meyer told AFP.

While the Covid-19 virus typically infects individuals for around 10 days before being neutralised by the body, some studies have shown that certain patients may carry it for several weeks or longer - maximising the window for mutations.

"There is still some level of immune pressure on the virus in this patient and the virus is being forced to mutate," said Meyer.


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