Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize gets his covid-19 vaccination at the Khayelitsha District Hospital. File Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)
Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize gets his covid-19 vaccination at the Khayelitsha District Hospital. File Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

SA closely monitoring surge in new Covid-19 variants in different parts of the world - Mkhize

By Chulumanco Mahamba Time of article published May 5, 2021

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Johannesburg - Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has called for calm as his department and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) closely monitor the surge in new coronavirus variants in different parts of the world.

The minister’s call follows an allegedly reported case of the coronavirus found in a KwaZulu-Natal patient who had recently travelled to India. The reported infection sparked fears about the possibility of the B.1.617 variant, which is ravaging India, being found in South Africa.

“We have not detected the B.1.617 variant as yet in South Africa. However, we have consulted members of the genomics team who have informed us that they have intensified their surveillance, not only to ensure that variant can be detected quickly, but also to understand what the implications are for us in the context of B.1.351 being the dominant variant in South Africa,” said Mkhize on Monday.

The minister added that he would consult the Ministerial Advisory Committee on other measures regarding travellers from countries that have other variants of the virus.

“Their advice will assist us to determine the next steps forward, of which the government will announce these determinations in due course.”

The minister called for calm, saying all points of entry had strict containment measures.

The NICD acting executive director Professor Adrian Puren echoed Mkhize’s sentiments and said to date the B.1.617 variant had not been detected in South Africa and any suspected cases would be investigated.

“The institution has tremendous empathy for the dire situation that is unfolding in India and would like to reassure the South African public that we are keeping a close eye on developments,” Puren said.

Dr Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD, added that testing of Covid-19 positive samples from travellers entering South Africa from India and their close contacts would be prioritised.

“This will enable us to detect the B.1.617 and any other variants in a timely manner,” she said.

Puren added that the mutation of viruses was a natural occurrence in the life cycle of any virus and that although viral mutations were unavoidable, adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as wearing a mask and washing hands, had proven to greatly lessen the transmission of the disease.

Meanwhile, the South African Covid19 Modelling Consortium (SACMC) recently released a report on considerations for a potential third wave, which stated that the most likely drivers of a third wave were behaviour change after the end of the last wave, ongoing viral mutation, seasonal factors and reinfection due to the waning of immunity conveyed by previous infection.

The purpose of the brief was to assist government planners and decision-makers as well as the general public in tracking the start of a potential third wave, explore potential characteristics of a third wave and provide planning support in particular to the National and Provincial Departments of Health and National Treasury. “Across scenarios, in the absence of a new variant, we expect the peak of the third wave to be lower than the second wave. We however see that a slow, weak behavioural response increases admissions for severe or critical Covid-19 cases across most age groups,” the brief said.

SACMC added that the emergence of a highly transmissible new variant may result in a third wave of the same size as the second wave or worse, especially if the variant provides an opportunity for immune escape. “Delaying the start of the third wave allows for more time for vaccination,” the report said.

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