A new variant, the B1.1.529, has been confirmed by the Department of Health. Detected in Gauteng, which saw a rapid rise in cases over the past few days, it is feared that the variant is already present in other provinces of the country.
Source: Department of Health
The variant has also been detected in Hong Kong, China and Botswana.
While the variant has been detected in South Africa, this does not mean it is from this country.
The Health Minister, Joe Phaahla, together with scientists Prof Tulio de Oliveira and Dr Richard Lessells, reported on the new variant this afternoon in an address to the public and media.
Over the past 24 hours there have been 1,275 new cases and 22 more deaths. This is a 3.6% increase in the positivity rate over this period. Gauteng leads the way with 1,018 cases, followed by the Western Cape with 61 cases and then KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) with 41.
“The new cases in Gauteng appeared to be in the Tshwane area, and mostly among students,” says the minister.
At first the rise in cases were thought to be cluster outbreaks, but early signs from diagnostic laboratories showed that B1.1.529 has rapidly increased in Gauteng and could already have spread to other provinces.
“The concern is that B1.1.529 has a high number of mutations making it difficult for scientists to predict its behaviour,” adds the minister.
De Oliveira says while we can make some predictions about the impact of the variant, the full significance is uncertain.
“Not a lot is understood about this variant,” adds Lessells. “We are trying to characterise the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus,” he says.
- How transmissible is this mutation?
- How will it affect vaccine and the protection is provides?
- What is the risk of reinfection?
- Will disease severity be more or less?
- What diagnostics are needed?
De Oliveira admits that the variant has surprised them. “It has many more mutations than expected and the concern is that the cases will rise rapidly. However, this early detection has given us some time to prepare,” he says.
Vaccine still the best protection
“What we can say is that the vaccines remain the critical tool for protecting us from severe diseases and preventing another surge in cases that will put pressure on the healthcare system,” say both scientists.
The minister asked that the public avoid super spreader events, especially with schools closing. He urged the public to sanitise, wear their masks and social distance.
“While we hoped for a long recess in terms of no infections, this has descended on us. We thought there would be a spike in mid- or late December, but this variant is of serious concern as it is driving a spike in positive numbers,” says the minister.
Scientists have been tracking the variant for several months – as early as May this year – to understand how it behaves and how easily it transmits between people and how sharp a wave it could form.
The scientists will meet with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday to discuss the new variant and also assign it a Greek name.