File picture: Karoly Arvai / AFP.
File picture: Karoly Arvai / AFP.

Second wave driven by new Covid-19 mutation affects younger people

By Nathan Adams, Sam Spiller Time of article published Dec 20, 2020

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Cape Town - The new Covid-19 variant spreading across the country is more contagious and appears to affect young people more than the previous strain and authorities warn additional restrictions may be necessary.

The Health Department has confirmed that the mutated strain, known as SARS-CoV-2 or termed 501.v2 variant has “been identified in almost 200 samples“ collected from 50 different hospitals and clinics in the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

On Friday night, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that researchers had discovered a new mutation to the virus – similar to one found in Britain this week – that he said seemed to affect young people more than strains that had previously been circulating.

"Clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture – in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no comorbidities presenting with critical illness," said Mkhize. The evidence "strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant".

While Mkhize didn't draw a connection between the recent Ballito Rage event, outside Durban, where more than 1000 youngsters were affected, which other officials have termed a "super-spreader" event, and the proliferation of the new coronavirus variant, their combined effect has seen a surge in cases and hospitalisations across the three provinces.

"Our youths are not wearing masks, and some are clearly intoxicated," he said, referring to the graduation parties. "They're throwing away caution to the wind and don't care about the rules of the disaster."

Mkhize said cases were "growing exponentially" and warned that additional restrictions would probably be necessary.

Co-chair of South Africa's coronavirus task force Dr Salim Abdool Karim said: "South Africa's second wave may have predated the recent parties, but they served to amplify the spread of the virus at a critical time so that it created widespread community transmission."

He noted that other events at nightclubs and universities attended by young people were also to blame.

Covid-19 vaccines that have been developed and already distributed in parts of Europe and in the USA will arrive in SA early next year where there have been close to 25 000 deaths.

But experts have admitted that there is no telling whether these vaccines will be effective against the 501.v2 variant discovered.

The Director of the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Professor Tulio de Oliviera said the efficacy of current vaccines on the mutated strain of Covid-19 is not yet known.

“At the moment, we don’t know. But what we are doing is working very quickly ... and this work involves both growing the virus in the laboratory and challenging the virus with antibodies from people who were previously infected with other lineages,” said De Oliviera.

Professor Burtram Fielding, the Director of Research and Development at the University of the Western Cape, agreed. “Mutations for coronaviruses are very common, and typically, mutations would affect transmissibility first, so how easy they spread from one person to the other.”

This would mean an even greater strain on an already stretched public and private health sector.

De Oliviera said this more contagious strain was a real cause for concern, as it is similar to the coronavirus variant now seen in the UK.

“These two variants that emerged independently are more transmissible than the current lineages. This is of great concern. More transmission variance means more people infected, more people infected means more people will need help and especially access to oxygen and ventilators,” said De Oliviera.

With testing being ramped up to deal with the second wave, De Oliviera doesn’t foresee specific testing for this strain becoming mandatory.

“At the moment, we do expect the vaccines that have been developed to work against this virus, so we don’t see a necessity to test the person to see if they have this lineage before receiving the vaccine,” he said.

On the heels of the new variant, Cape Town’s law enforcement will be out in full force with more than a 1000 staff monitoring beaches. Those who break the rules will be slapped with hefty fines and may even face jail time.

Richard Bosman, executive director for safety and security at the City of Cape Town, warned the City had the authority to limit access for beach-goers in the case of overcrowding, and apply punitive measures on those found not practising social distancing.

“People can be fined, and if necessary, as a last resort, they face arrest for contravening the disaster regulations,” Bosman said.

“Regulation 87 provides for penalties – a person could be upon conviction – be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both such fine and or imprisonment.

“The fines vary, but can be anything from R1 000 upwards.” - additional reporting The Washington Post

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