World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan looks on during an interview with AFP in Geneva. Picture: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan looks on during an interview with AFP in Geneva. Picture: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

WHO scientist warns of ’more contagious’ B.1.617.2 variant as SA records 4 cases

By AFP Time of article published May 9, 2021

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Johannesburg - A Covid-19 variant (B.1.617.2) spreading in India is more contagious and may be dodging vaccine protections, contributing to the country's explosive outbreak, the World Health Organization's chief scientist said on Saturday.

In an interview with AFP, Soumya Swaminathan warned that "the epidemiological features that we see in India today do indicate that it's an extremely rapidly spreading variant".

The news is alarming for South Africa after Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Saturday that four cases of the B.1.617.2 variant had been recorded in the country.

"The four cases of B.1.617.2 have been detected in (the provinces of) Gauteng (2) and KwaZulu-Natal (2) and all have a history of recent arrival from India," Mkhize said in a statement late Saturday.

He said all cases have been isolated and managed according to national Covid-19 case management guidelines and contact tracing has been performed in order to limit the spread of this variant.

To date, the country has recorded more than 1.59 million coronavirus cases, of which more than 54,700 have been fatal.

A further 2191 new infections have been recorded with 37 deaths on Saturday, according to the health department’s daily statement.

Eleven cases of another variant first detected in the United Kingdom and known as B.1.1.7 have also been found in South Africa, the statement added, noting that community transmission of that variant had "already set in".

South Africa is at least the fourth country on the continent to pick up the B.1.617.2 variant, alongside Kenya, Uganda and Morocco.

South Africa has not yet joined the growing number of countries worldwide that have banned flights from India to limit the spread of its variant.

Mkhize said travel restrictions would "need to be balanced against scientific realities".

An announcement will be made once the cabinet has consulted on the matter, he added.

India on Saturday for the first time registered more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths in just 24 hours, and more than 400,000 new infections.

New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system, and many experts suspect the official death and case numbers are a gross underestimate.

Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician and clinical scientist, said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in India last October, was clearly a contributing factor to the catastrophe unfolding in her homeland.

"There have been many accelerators that are fed into this," the 62-year-old said, stressing that "a more rapidly spreading virus is one of them".

The WHO recently listed B.1.617 -- which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics -- as a "variant of interest".

But so far it has stopped short of adding it to its short list of "variant of concern" -- a label indicating it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past vaccine protections.

Several national health authorities, including in the United States and Britain, have meanwhile said they consider B.1.617 a variant of concern, and Swaminathan said she expected the WHO to soon follow suit.

"B 1.617 is likely to be a variant of concern because it has some mutations which increase transmission, and which also potentially could make (it) resistant to antibodies that are generated by vaccination or by natural infection," she said.

But she insisted that the variant alone could not be blamed for the dramatic surge in cases and deaths seen in India, lamenting that the country appeared to have let down its guard down, with "huge social mixing and large gatherings".

Mass election rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have for instance partly been blamed for the staggering rise in infections.

But even as many in India felt the crisis was over, dropping mask-wearing and other protection measures, the virus was quietly spreading.

"In a large country like India, you could have transmission at low levels, which is what happened for many months," Swaminathan said.

"It was endemic (and) probably gradually increasing," she said, decrying that "those early signs were missed until it reached the point at which it was taking off vertically."

"At that point it's very hard to suppress, because it's then involving tens of thousands of people and it's multiplying at a rate at which it's very difficult to stop."

While India is now trying to scale up vaccination to rein in the outbreak, Swaminathan warned that the jabs alone would not be enough to gain control of the situation.

She pointed out that India, the world's largest vaccine-making nation, had only fully vaccinated around two percent of the 1.3 billion-plus population.

"It's going to take many months if not years to get to the point of 70 to 80 percent coverage," she said.

With that prospect, Swaminathan stressed that "for the foreseeable future, we need to depend on our tried and tested public health and social measures" to bring down transmission.

The surge in India is frightening not only due to the horrifying number of people who are sick and dying there, but also because the exploding infection numbers dramatically increase the chances of new and more dangerous variants emerging.

"The more the virus is replicating and spreading and transmitting, the more chances are that... mutations will develop and adapt," Swaminathan said.

"Variants which accumulate a lot of mutations may ultimately become resistant to the current vaccines that we have," she warned.

"That's going to be a problem for the whole world."

South Africa is Africa's worst virus-hit country, accounting for more than 34 percent of all cases in the region.

The country's second coronavirus wave, which peaked earlier this year, was driven by a local, more infectious coronavirus variant known as B.1.351.

Mkhize earlier this week raised the alarm over "a worrying trend of increasing numbers of detected cases" in certain provinces.

He warned of a looming third wave of infections likely to coincide with the upcoming southern hemisphere winter.

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