South Africa confirms first case of coronavirus but experts say it’s unlikely to spread

2020-03-05 16:13

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Thursday that the country has recorded its first case of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, but health department experts say the virus is unlikely to spread - partly because of South Africa's summer season.

On Thursday afternoon, Mkhize tweeted that a 38-year-old man who had travelled to Italy was the first confirmed positive case of Covid-19 in South Africa. The man, along with his wife, were part of a group of 10 people and returned from Italy on 1 March. He then began presenting symptoms and went to see his doctor on 3 March, after which he went into self isolation.

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A team of specialists, including epidemiologists and clinicians, is currently in KwaZulu-Natal to test those who have been in contact with the couple.

But South Africa's summer might help to slow down the spread of the virus because of Covid-19's inability to survive in high temperatures, explains Shaheen Mehtar, who leads the national health department's coronavirus infection prevention and control programme.

Mehtar also sits on the World Health Organization's (WHO) coronavirus expert group.

Although there is inconclusive evidence on the effect of heat on Covid-19 currently, some scientists think that when the virus leaves the body — for instance, when people cough, propelling droplets of virus-carrying saliva onto their hands or surfaces — Covid-19 dies in temperatures of about 24°C or 25°C. 

Sensitive to heat

"The virus is very sensitive to heat," she explains, "so [our current] temperatures are basically too high for the virus." 

She says: "Even if one or two people get infected the spread of it is not going to be very good because the virus doesn't like heat."

She says: “Even if one or two people get infected the spread of it is not going to be very good because the virus doesn't like heat.”

But scientists disagree about if the weather will play a role in transmission. 

Oxford University professor of global health Trudie Lang was adamant that it was too soon to know for sure what role heat plays in the outbreak. "We absolutely don't know that," she toldNew Scientist magazine in February.

However, at least some researchers, including those at the University City of Hong Kong are already assuming that warm weather will curb the new coronavirus in mathematical modelling predicting the virus' future spread in China, papers currently in print show.

Mehtar says the 38-year-old man and his wife would have been tested together for Covid-19 on their return to South Africa, and, if his wife tested positive, it would have been announced. 

South Africa didn't see any cases during previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that happened during the country's summer. 

READ | Coronavirus: SA's first positive case of Covid-19 confirmed

"When we have our winter, then [Covid-19] might come to us but at the moment I don't think it's going to come here," Mehtar says.

Currently, the WHO recommends that people who have been in contact with a confirmed case quarantine themselves at home for 14 days to minimise the risk to the public. Those coming from nations with epidemics such as Italy that have imposed restrictions on movement should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. 

No quarantine is yet recommended for people who have simply returned from a country reporting a handful of cases. 

South Africans returning

Soon, almost 200 South Africans from the Chinese city of Wuhan, considered the epicentre of the epidemic, will arrive in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week. One-hundred-and-eighty-four South Africans will be flown home from Wuhan, according to a statement by the inter-ministerial task team, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure.

South Africans returning home from Wuhan will be quarantined for 21 days at what many media outlets have reported will be a military base outside Bloemfontein. However, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure said in a statement Wednesday that no venue had been confirmed.

Based on Mkhize's previous remarks, the repatriation is expected to happen in the coming week.

Many South Africans have taken to social media to wonder whether this homecoming will bring with it another case of the virus — and if the country is prepared to contain any potential spread of Covid-19.

But South Africa's quarantine process will err on the side of caution — further diminishing the risk of a new case among the group.

The country's 21-day quarantine stretches far beyond that and those arriving from China have shown no symptoms of the virus. Plus, they've already spent about six weeks under quarantine in China where they have been repeatedly tested for Covid-19, explains Mehtar. 

'Don't stress'

According to Cohen, the decision to quarantine the Wuhan contingent as a group made logistical sense given that so many people were returning together from a high-risk area. 

No South African who tests positive for the new coronavirus prior to getting on the plane returning to South Africa will be allowed to return with the group, Mkhize told journalists at a 1 March briefing. Instead, they'll be referred to the Chinese health system.

Mehtar stressed that South Africans should not panic about the new coronavirus.

"I am not concerned about South Africa just at the moment."

People with questions about Covid-19 can call the government's public 24-hour hotline 0800 029 999. 

[Updated 6 March 16:35: This story was updated to include information that the evidence on the impact of heat on Covid-19's ability to survive, is inconclusive.]

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health JournalismSubscribe to the newsletter.

Read more on:    zweli mkhize  |  coronavirus  |  health
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