As the country grapples with its preparedness to deal with the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December – and has already affected more than 103 000 people and killed more than 3 500 worldwide – local epidemiologists say plans were put in place in readiness for an epidemic of this nature more than 10 years ago.
In December 2017, the coronavirus became a notifiable condition and was gazetted under the “Regulations relating to the surveillance and the control of notifiable medical conditions”, along with 21 other diseases – only, it did not yet have a name.
It was listed under number 18 as a “respiratory disease caused by a novel respiratory pathogen”. A footnote explained that examples of novel respiratory pathogens included novel influenza A virus and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) coronavirus.
Its listing makes it “of public health importance”, meaning that prompt notification, verification and response to its outbreak are crucial.
“Globally, we expect a pandemic every now and then,” said Dr Natalie Mayet, deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
“There are more than 200 flu viruses and every year they mutate and change. That is why your flu vaccines change – it is called an antigenic shift.
“So, every year, we see what is happening in Europe, or rather, during the December period we see what kind of flu was happening on that side, and in the southern hemisphere we manufacture vaccines mirrored on the northern hemisphere flu pattern.”
Rewind to 1918, when the world experienced its first largest influenza pandemic, commonly known as Spanish flu. South Africa is said to have lost 500 000 people at the time.
“That is actually how the department of health was established in the country – because it was said that we needed a control body for infectious diseases, given that people were dying from flu.”
In the coronavirus family, we have seen outbreaks such as Severe Acute respiratory syndrome, which was found to have originated in bats, strike from November 2002 to July 2003 and spread to 37 countries in two weeks. Then came Mers, which originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and is said to have come from camels. About 850 people died. Now Covid-19 has arrived.Mayet explained, "We expected that we would have another pandemic - a new virus we didn't know. It started with SARS, then came MERS, then H1N1 and now corona.
"I worked in the private sector in 2011-2012, we were already developing pandemic preparedness plans. The department of health had a pandemic preparedness plan dated 2016 - we have now taken it out of the bottom drawer, dusted it off and seeing what we need to revise. So we didn't know what it was going to be, but the document is there already covering the basics, and many corporates also have preparedness plans and contingency plans for risk mitigation. Now they're taking those out too to tweak it based on information and knowledge we have on China."
* This story was updated on March 10 to reflect a change in South Africa's Spanish Flu deaths and to add a clarification paragraph by Mayet.