South Africa


Covid-19 variants – first detected in India and UK – hit South African shores

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South Africa’s Health Ministry has officially confirmed the presence of the B.1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, which was discovered in India, and another variant first detected in the UK. Minister Zweli Mkhize says new variant threats are a concern and the government is discussing potential travel regulations, following ‘appropriate consultations’.

On the evening of Saturday 8 May, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced South Africa had four confirmed cases of the B.1.617.2 variant, first identified in India, where cases of Covid-19 have reached record daily highs.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed two cases were reported in Gauteng and another two in KwaZulu-Natal.

“The B.1.617.2 variant is currently highlighted as a variant of interest by the World Health Organisation and is one of multiple variants circulating in India,” read an institute statement.

All the cases had been isolated according to Covid-19 case management practices and contact tracing has been performed, said the NICD.

The WHO describes a “variant of concern” as a variant that has been identified as causing “community transmission, multiple Covid-19 cases/clusters, or has been detected in multiple countries”.

Dr Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD, said provincial health authorities remained on “high alert” and had prioritised the sequencing of Covid-19 positive samples from travellers entering the country, from India specifically, and their close contacts.

South Africa currently has 1,594,817 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 26,005 confirmed active cases.

In Mkhize’s statement on Saturday, he confirmed the four cases with the variant first discovered in India. 

According to Reuters, the Indian Health Ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the previous 24 hours — taking the country’s official death toll to 242,632. With the new confirmed cases of 403,738, the country’s Covid-19 confirmed case total was 22.3 million. India is currently still in its second wave of infections. 

Mkhize’s statement confirmed South Africa also had 11 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first discovered in the UK. Two cases were confirmed in Gauteng, one in KwaZulu-Natal and eight in Western Cape. Mkhize said the variant had been detected in community samples — “this therefore suggests that community transmission of B.1.1.7 has already set in”.

Mkhize urged South Africans not to panic, “as the fundamentals of the public health response (testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine) have not changed”.

“We all have a responsibility to adhere to prevention measures (avoiding large gatherings, physical distancing, mask wearing, ventilation and hand sanitation) in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa,” said Mkhize. 

South Africans have already been warned of an imminent third wave of Covid-19 infections. On Friday, Daily Maverick reported that Gauteng’s third wave could happen within the next three weeks. On Saturday, EWN reported warnings had been issued in Free State, where 1,285 new cases were confirmed over the previous three days.

Mkhize added that while the world grappled with Covid-19 surges in one territory were bound to spill over into other territories.

“We are all deeply concerned about the threat of variants of concern and these reports demonstrate that the issue is complicated.” He added: “Travel restrictions will need to be balanced against the scientific realities in order to protect the economy.”

The minister confirmed the latest findings were being urgently processed by the government and “announcements pertaining to travel regulations will be made after all appropriate consultations have been undertaken by Cabinet”.

South Africa has had 382,480 healthcare workers vaccinated according to its Sisonke protocol. In a Daily Maverick webinar in April, the government’s top Covid medical advisor Professor Barry Schoub said “tremendous benefit” had already been seen in healthcare workers who had been vaccinated.

Vaccination of people over 60 years of age is expected to start on 17 May. DM



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