Scientists slam UK decision to keep SA on red list
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The British government’s decision to keep South Africa on its red list apparently due to “small levels” of the Beta variant has led to widespread disbelief and frustration among scientists in South Africa.
The acting UK High Commissioner to South Africa told the media that the Joint Biosecurity Centre had decided to keep South Africa on the red list mainly due to the potential of the Beta variant to evade vaccine protection.
The British government cites case numbers, genomic sequencing ability, and the presence of variants, among the criteria it considers when reviewing which countries to take off the red list.
David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) said the British High Commission reveals a shocking level of ignorance about the pandemic in its host nation.
“No infections from the Beta variant have been seen in South Africa in the past three weeks. It has been completely displaced by the same variant circulating in the UK, that is Delta.
"Reviewing this should be one of the key priorities of the new UK High Commissioner who starts this week. We trust that the new High Commissioner will expedite the meeting between scientists in the UK and South Africa so that once and for all we can eliminate this erroneous belief that a Beta variant in South Africa poses any risk to UK citizens," he said.
In a briefing to Satsa in August, Emile Stipp, chief health actuary for Discovery Limited, declared that the position of the UK authorities in keeping SA on the red list was untenable.
He said at the time that Beta had essentially disappeared in South Africa, which meant it could not be introduced to the UK from South Africa.
“Even if Beta was introduced into the UK from elsewhere, and we assume that vaccines work, the reproduction rate of Beta is half of what would be required for it to spread effectively with such a high percentage of the UK population being vaccinated.
“The clear conclusion is that vaccines must work otherwise we would have seen it spread," said Stipp.
Scientists said inconsistencies in this latest round were beyond belief.
Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, called the removal of some countries, while maintaining South Africa on the red list, “unfathomable”.
He said South Africa had higher levels of vaccination, lower case numbers and higher rates of surveillance for variants than some of those removed.
Professor Marc Mendelson, infectious diseases Professor at the University of Cape Town, said the issue about consistency extends to the comparison of South Africa to other countries that have come off the red list.
“South Africa has uploaded close to 7 000 Coronavirus sequences to the GISAID database between June and August. Egypt and Oman, two of the countries removed from the red list last week, uploaded just nine and 88, making any analysis of circulating variants in those countries impossible.
“Only Turkey had acceptable numbers of sequences for analysis. In comparison, 1.6% of Kenya’s population is fully vaccinated as opposed to South Africa, which is 20% of the adult population fully vaccinated, and 30% either fully or with some protection from one vaccination. In Pakistan, just over 10.6% have been vaccinated,” he explained.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the bio-informatician who identified the Beta variant, said the decision to keep South Africa on the red list of travel from the UK was “really unscientific”.
“The UK has exported more infections out of the country than South Africa (Alpha variant spread more than Beta) and more Delta was widely exported from the UK," he said.