- A new SARS-CoV-2 variant has been identified as being widespread across most SA regions by now
- However, despite the finding, sufficient evidence that can answer crucial questions is still lacking and research is ongoing
- In the meantime, people need to focus on responsible behaviour during the second wave, experts caution
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced the discovery of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease, News24 reported on Friday evening.
While Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) co-chairperson Professor Salim Abdool Karim cautioned that there are early signs that the new variant, named 501.V2, is spreading fast during South Africa's second wave, he added that the severity of the virus in the second wave is still unclear and that research is ongoing. He said in some cases it is spreading faster than the variant responsible for the first wave.
Mkhize also stressed that there is no reason to panic and that the implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), including the wearing of face masks and physical distancing, remain the basic strategies to fight the spread of this virus.
Experts expressed the same sentiments to Health24, noting citizens should be mindful that people are the key drivers of virus transmission.
Further investigation is needed
Speaking about the possible biological and epidemiological significance of this new variant, the head of the medical virology division at the University of Stellenbosch Professor Wolfgang Preiser told Health24 that "the final verdict is out". Preiser explained that some of the changes affect parts of the virus that play roles in allowing it to infect human cells and are targets for the immune system.
"One will need to look carefully whether there is any suggestion that this variant spreads more easily, causes more severe disease or may not be recognised by antibodies or immune cells from people who have been infected before [and who will have received the vaccine in future]," he said.
"This is speculation at this stage and ongoing research is needed to investigate it."
According to Abdool Karim, preliminary results suggest that the new, dominant variant is associated with a higher viral load (found in swabs) and may therefore translate to higher transmissibility of the virus. He said viruses are known to evolve to become more transmissible over time and it is completely normal to see one or two changes in this virus every month.
Some of the next steps will include informing key role players about the variant; publishing the data in a prominent journal; and urgently increasing phylogenetic screening, which involves screening 100 to 200 viruses every month from across the country.
Basic preventative measures still 'critically important'
Professor Ian Sanne, an infectious diseases specialist and MAC member, said it is worth noting that scientists could show that this new variant, which emerged in Nelson Mandela Bay, has moved between provinces and is rapidly emerging as the key virus infection in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western and Eastern Cape – with additional samples from the other provinces currently being tested.
"It does, however, show that lack of movement and other basic preventative measures such as hand washing, sanitising and mask wearing are critically important to prevent the ongoing transmission of the virus," Sanne added.
Honorary Professor Robert Wilkinson from the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) said irrespective of the possible viral variants, people should act responsibly.
"South Africa, like many countries, is in a very tight space right now," he said. "The combination of second wave, tiredness, desire to be on holiday, not disrupt the economy and increased travel has the potential to significantly raise case load and deaths."
'Common sense will go a long way'
Preiser stated that until such time that a substantial proportion of the population has been protected by vaccination, it is of utmost importance that everyone follows the standard precautions.
"The overwhelming majority of South Africans have not had it yet – and even if they have had it, they may not be reliably immune – and many have risk factors that can make illness very severe.
"Hospitals are under considerable strain… Common sense will go a long way to controlling the further spread of Covid," he said.
'SA scientists world-leading in monitoring epidemic'
Speaking about the discovery of the new variant, Preiser emphasised the significance of working as a network spanning across the country and using state-of-the-art methods and technology to monitor the situation in near real-time. The discovery is a few weeks "behind", but this is due to the time it takes to conduct these highly demanding tests and analyses, explained Preiser.
"Molecular epidemiology [tracking an infectious agent through observing its genetic changes] is very important and complementary to 'traditional' epidemiology (such as counting cases, interviewing patients and tracking contact)," he added.
He said the approach being used may provide additional insights, such as how the infection reached certain parts of the country or which events were responsible for spreading it.
Sanne also commented that the striking discovery of this new variant of SARS-CoV-2 is reflective of the great scientific leadership in the country.
"It demonstrates the incredible capacity of South African scientists, particularly in the field of phylogenetic virology, who have been working together since the beginning of the pandemic to monitor the genetic variants that are emerging," he said.
The discovery was led by Professor Tulio de Oliveira from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) and CAPRISA, Sanne explained.
"This is an important discovery and goes to show that South African scientists are world-leading in monitoring the coronavirus epidemic," Sanne said.