Call for increased vigilance, not panic
THE rise in new Covid-19 infections in the country could be a warning sign of a third wave, says virology experts.
For four consecutive days, from Wednesday to Saturday, the country recorded an average of 2 000 cases a day.
In total, South Africa has nearly 1.6 million positive cases and a death rate of nearly 55 000.
Associate Professor Wendy Burgers, from UCT’s Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, noted that cases had steadily increased over the past month and positive test results were going up across the country.
“The epidemiologists tell us the warning signs are clear, that this might be the start of the third wave. However, we can still take all the precautions to prevent infections from spreading.”
Burgers dismissed concerns that the entry of the B.1.617 variant, dominant in India, could be a booster for the third wave.
“While there may be some indication that B.1.617 may be more transmissible, it in fact shares some of the same changes to its genetic code as the 501Y.V2 variant that we have in South Africa.”
She said people should be more concerned about a new variant created in the country.
“With an increase in cases in South Africa, we should be more concerned about new variants emerging from ongoing transmission here, so it’s vital that we limit viral spread, no matter which variant we are talking about.”
Burgers said the vaccines being administered would provide immunity against the Indian variant.
“The existing evidence suggests strongly that vaccines will be also protective against variant B.1.617, currently circulating in India.”
Professor Thumbi Ndung’u, the deputy director of the African Health Research Institute at UKZN, also said there were signs of a third wave.
“The SA Covid-19 modelling consortium has indicated that the third wave could be worse than the second wave. There is, therefore, a need for increased vigilance but not panic.”
He said any new variant would be of concern but the more population transmission was lowered, the lower the likelihood of new variants emerging.
“We must focus on application of the non-pharmaceutical methods to break the transmission chain and more importantly, vaccine roll-out. The latter is the most efficient way to stop transmission.”
Epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who recently joined the World Health Organization's Science Council, said the creation of a new variant was more concerning than the Indian variant.
“It would become a worry if someone has protection against 501Y.v2 and then developed a variant where the virus escapes those responses.”
He said people should not be blaming other countries if South Africa was hit by a third wave.
“It’s easier to blame others when we walk around every day without observing proper Covid-19 protocols.”
He said the variant in India shared the same mutations as the South African variant 501Y.v2.
“This is one of the reasons why I am less concerned about it.”
He said the B.1.1.7 UK variant, evident in the Northern Cape, Free State and North West, was of higher concern, as it was a fast-moving virus that spreads rapidly.
On Saturday, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed that the Indian variant was detected in four people, two cases of which were from KZN and two in Gauteng.
All four individuals had a history of recent arrival from India, said Mkhize.
He said a further 11 people were detected with the B.1.1.7 UK variant.
Of the 11, eight were detected in the Western Cape, two with a travel history from Bahrain. One was detected in KwaZulu-Natal and two in Gauteng
“All cases have been isolated and managed according to national Covid19 case management guidelines, and contact tracing has been performed in order to limit the spread of this variant.
“The B.1.1.7 has been detected in community samples and this, therefore, suggests that community transmission of B.1.1.7 has already set in.”
Mkhize said that as the pandemic progressed, the detection of new variants was inevitable.
“It’s important to emphasise that variants can develop at anytime in any country so they do not have to be imported. We reiterate that there is no need for panic, as the fundamentals of the public health response (testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine) have not changed.”