Health Minister Joe Phaahla says the government still needs to meet and decide if there would be any need to restrict movement in the wake of the new COVID-19 variant. The B.1.1.529 strain has been detected in Gauteng but is slowly spreading to other provinces.

Of the more than 1 200 new COVID-19 infections in the country, 80% of them are in Gauteng. There is concern that as many companies close for the December holidays and holidaymakers leave Gauteng, this might further increase the spread of the new variant.

The B.1.1.529 strain has got scientists and the government extremely worried. This new variant has a high number of mutations and has the ability to spread very quickly.

Even though it has been detected in Tshwane in Gauteng it does not originate here as it has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong – from a traveller from South Africa.

Dr. Richard Lessells,  from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, says the variant is able to get around parts of the immune system.

“And here again, we see a lot of mutations in the spike protein that might affect how well the virus is neutralised. But we also see some mutations that are well known from other variants, and they give us concern that this might give the virus enhanced transmissibility. So, it enhanced ability to spread from person to person and also to potentially get around other parts of the immune system and not just the neutralising anti-bodies and all these things are what gives us some concern.”

Africa CDC and WHO to meet with SA, Botswana over new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529

Behaviour of new variant

Even though it has been detected in Gauteng it is now spreading rapidly outward and into other provinces. He says work is under way to understand the behaviour of this new variant.

“There is a lot we don’t understand about this variant, how transmissible it is. So, how efficiently can it spread in the population? One of the key questions is around the vaccines and the protection that the vaccines offer and whether the variant affects the protection at all. As we said we can only make predictions and we can only know for real by doing the studies in the laboratory and that work is ongoing just from Tuesday when this variant was detected.”

As the new infections continue to rise, there is now a concern about the pressure this is going to put on the country’s hospitals. Phaahla says hospital resurgence plans have been activated following his meeting with the country’s health MEC’s today.

Asked whether plans are in place to put restrictions on the movement of people to curb the spread, he says no decision has been taken thus far.

“We are still going to have further discussions at various forums including the Coronavirus Council, the cabinet, consultation with Premiers, so it is too early to predict what is going to be the line of action. From the experience of the last 21 months or so we can almost predict how this is going to move especially as Delta started in Gauteng, you can rest assured as people start to move even more in the next two weeks this will be all over.”

Department of Health briefing on the confirmation of a new variant in SA:

Adhere to non-pharmaceutical measures

The public has been urged to continue to adhere to non-pharmaceutical measures and for those who have not yet vaccinated to do so as it would cushion them against getting very sick.

National Health Department Director-General Nicholas Crisp says there are more vaccines than people that need to be vaccinated.

“We do have 16, 5 million doses of vaccines in the country at the moment. But we are also expecting 2.5 million doses to be delivered this week. We are getting more vaccines faster than we are using them. For some time now we have been differing out deliveries not decreasing our orders so that we don’t accumulate and stockpile vaccines that become a risk for us to manage. But there are other countries in Africa who need vaccines as well.”

The public has been urged to continue adhering to non-pharmaceutical measures and avoid crowded areas where cluster outbreaks can materialise.