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South Africa is struggling to contain a second wave of Covid-19 infections which appears to be driven by a new and more infectious variant of the disease, similar to that in the UK.
Scientists and officials have warned the country’s 56 million people that the new variant, referred to as 501.V2, carries a heavier viral load and appears to be more prevalent among the young.
“It is still very early but at this stage, the preliminary data suggests the virus that is now dominating in the second wave is spreading faster than the first wave,” Prof Salim Abdool Karim, the chairman of the government’s ministerial advisory committee (MAC), said.
South Africa may see “many more cases” in the new wave than it experienced earlier this year, Abdool Karim said.
Prof Ian Sanne, a member of the MAC, said the variant detected in South Africa was not the same as that identified in the UK.
“There are two different viruses but they are different variants of the same strain of the coronavirus,” Sanne told local media.
Five countries, including Switzerland and Germany, have banned flights from South Africa to stop the spread of the variant.
South Africa has recorded 931,000 cases of Covid-19, with almost 25,000 deaths, according to official statistics. Excess mortality studies suggest a death toll of more than 56,000.
After a first wave peaked in July and August, the daily total for new cases fell dramatically. However, the number of new infections began to rise steeply at the beginning of December, reaching 11,000 earlier this week.
Dr Richard Lessells, a leading infectious disease expert in South Africa, said it was still unclear how effective existing vaccines would be against the variant. Another concern was the possibility of reinfection of people who had already caught Covid-19.
“There are a few more concerns with our variant [than that in the UK] for the vaccine … But we are now doing the careful, methodical work in the lab to answer all the questions we have, and that takes time,” he said.
South Africa has more than 8,500 people being treated in hospital with Covid-19, surpassing the previous high of 8,300 recorded in August.
In the Western Cape province, once a popular destination for holidaymakers and tourists, private and public hospitals are filling fast.
The province’s current seven-day average for new infections is 2,950, substantially more than the most intense period of the first wave when it was 1,623. More than one in three tests carried out in the province are positive.
Researchers say the South African variant emerged in Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape province, where healthcare services are among the weakest in the country.
“This lineage spread rapidly, becoming within weeks the dominant lineage in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Whilst the full significance of the mutations is yet to be determined, the genomic data, showing the rapid displacement of other lineages, suggest that this lineage may be associated with increased transmissibility,” a research paper published this week said.
Vaccines for between 3% and 10% of the population are unlikely to be available for at least six months, experts believe.
The South African government has so far responded with only very limited control measures – cutting days and hours for the trade of alcohol, imposing greater restrictions on mass gatherings and closing a number of popular beaches. Officials have renewed calls for the wearing of face masks, social distancing and hand-washing.
Few local experts believe such measures alone will be able to restrain the spread of the variant, but the government’s options are limited. A strict lockdown in March slowed the outbreak but at a very high economic and social cost.
There have been more than 2.5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 on the African continent – with more than 2 million recoveries and 59,000 deaths cumulatively, according to the World Health Organization.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: South Africa struggles to contain second Covid wave with new strain | World news