Johannesburg - Covid-19 appears set to ruin another Christmas, as countries began closing borders to South Africans in fear that an unknown variant may be able to sidestep vaccines, is more infectious and possibly more deadly.
As news sank in yesterday following the announcement of the new Covid variant, B.1.1.529, there was a desperate scramble for flights out of South Africa. This as countries around the world began implementing travel restrictions on Southern African states.
Countries were quick to impose these measures, hours after the Department of Health held a media briefing with scientists summarising the new B.1.1.529 strain, in what has been described as a “heavily mutated strain” with cases identified in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
For many travellers, these announcements have caused confusion and uncertainty.
Traveller Leon Dessels, a former South African living in the UK, was due to leave South Africa next Tuesday, but now faces an uncertain week ahead.
“My wife and daughter left on November 13 and I stayed on for an extra two weeks to finish some work.
“I was meant to be back in the UK for Christmas,” said Dessels, adding that he only saw the news of the new strain yesterday morning.
Ex-South African and retired newspaperman Dennis Rink said he had “sneaked back into the UK on the last flight from South Africa”.
“Now I have to self-isolate for 10 days,” he said from the UK yesterday.
“Of course, it was only when we landed that everyone’s phones started pinging to say flights from SA were being halted.”
Another ex-South African, Ruth Carter and her daughter Bronwyn, were packed and ready to come to South Africa this weekend to visit family and friends for Christmas.
“We were also going to spend time caring for my mother who is quite frail and give my brother a break. It’s devastating and irritating, the airline has not come back to us, all we know is that all the flights are cancelled,” said Carter yesterday
Yesterday, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), said hospitalisation and outcomes related to B.1.1.529 were being monitored in real time and “based on our understanding of the mutations in this lineage, partial immune escape is likely, but it is likely that vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death”.
Speaking to the Saturday Star Gauteng Provincial Government (GPG), Thabo Masebe said that while there had been a spike in new Covid infections particularly in the province, it was too early to call this the start of the fourth wave.
“At this stage we are not able to predict when the fourth wave will hit Gauteng. We are continuing with our vaccination programme to ensure that people are protected against severe illness, hospitalisation and death in the event they contract the coronavirus. There are enough vaccine doses to cover all eligible persons who wish to be vaccinated ahead of the fourth wave,” he said.
The government is urging South Africans to remain vigilant against Covid-19 and play their part in protecting themselves and the broader community by having themselves vaccinated while scientists investigate the new variant.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Saturday, to assess developments, including scientific updates around the newly detected coronavirus variant.
But while there is uncertainty around the new variant, experts say don’t panic.
Wits Professor of vaccinology, Shabir Madhi believes there is no need for the country to go into a hard lockdown despite the discovery of the new B1.1.529 variant.
“The worst decision the South African government can make is to go into a lockdown,” said Madhi.
“The only reason for higher levels of restriction is if South African health facilities are coming under pressure.”
“Even then, there needs to be a regional approach, as the resurgence will differ in timing and severity across provinces, as was the case with the third wave.”
Madhi stressed that it is still likely that vaccines will protect against severe B1.1.529 Covid.
Madhi has also urged the government to push on with vaccinations for those above the age of 65 and immunocompromised individuals.
“The Health Department should not hold back on boosting people above 65 years, immunocompromised individuals, and all adults who only received a single dose of JJ – and do so without creating obstacles.
“It’s much more sensible than keeping 17 million doses in the depot.”
Professor Alex Welte, of the Centre of Excellence for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University said if South Africa had to go into another lockdown, it needed to be short and sharp.
"If you are going to make a big tightening up of the screws, do it for a short time and pick your timing properly,” he said, “when it's kind of reaching its crescendo, because that's when the lockdown has the most impact.”
Yesterday BioNTech, the German company that had developed the coronavirus vaccine with Pfizer, said they were urgently studying the new variant. They were expecting data from laboratory tests at the latest in two weeks. If the vaccine needs to be tweaked, the company said it could do so within six weeks and ship batches within 100 days.
For the local travel industry, cancelled fights, bookings and another festive season of no tourists, spells misery.
“It’s Groundhog Day for the South African travel industry. The new ban is a knee-jerk reaction of the UK government that puts airlines, hotels, travel businesses and travellers in a very difficult situation,”said Association of Southern African Travel Agents CEO Otto de Vries.