8 key points from News24's interview with Professor Salim Abdool Karim

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the country's chief coronavirus scientist.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the country's chief coronavirus scientist.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, an internationally-recognised epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist who is working as an advisor for the government for the Covid-19 outbreak, sat down with News24 on Wednesday for an in-depth interview on the country's response to the coronavirus.

Here are eight important points he made:

1. South Africa's capable scientists

South Africa's timeous response to the Covid-19 pandemic was a reflection of the strong academic and research capability that South Africa had, Karim said.

"We are fortunate that we have so many accomplished scientists, [Health Minister Zweli Mkhize] could pick 45 to 50 people who are accomplished in their own right and in their own fields."

It was encouraging that these accomplished people have been made available to the country during this time of crisis, he added.

2. Our response to HIV and TB has created experienced experts

Karim said South African experts were able to draw from experiences of how they dealt with other viruses like HIV and TB.

"In many ways, HIV created a whole generation of scientists who really understand a viral epidemic.

"HIV is a very different epidemic but the elements of a virus and how it spreads remain the same, so in many ways we have an advantage."

Contact tracing already existed before the Covid-19 epidemic because tracers have been active in response to TB, he added.

"We've always been doing contact tracing for TB that's not new for us, we already have people employed who know how to do this."

3. Covid-19 is not like the flu

Karim explained while there were some similarities between the flu and coronavirus, there were many more differences as Covid-19 was much more dangerous.

Every year, the flu exhibits a slight change in its genetic material, meaning there is a new strain that comes around - but there is also a vaccine.

While people with flu show symptoms early on, Covid-19 generally does not, so people only start to become physically sick days after being infected.

This means people can spread it quickly without even knowing, leading to an exponential growth in infections which can be deadly.

4. Treatment for viruses is lacking

Until HIV, our ability to make drugs against viruses was not well developed.

While there are drugs to fight HIV, the coronavirus does not have the same enzyme as HIV so these drugs will not work for it.

"We have no evidence that any treatment is effective against the coronavirus," Karim said.

He added treatment was only based on the symptoms a patient exhibited and not the virus itself.

5. Re-infection rate

The good news was that almost everyone would develop an immune response to the virus, Karim said.

However, it was not yet known whether this would protect a patient from getting re-infected, he added

"The evidence so far suggests that is so [but] the evidence so far is flimsy, and I would not bank on it."

In the limited time the world has had to study Covid-19, Karim said there have been no reports of re-infection.

6. Approaches

Karim said, based on the approaches taken by other countries, South Africa was able to decide on what an effective approach would be to fight Covid-19.

The "ostrich approach", which essentially involved ignoring the problem, only worsened things, he added.

Another approach taken in the UK was herd immunity - letting the virus spread in the hope that it will result in immunity which will then protect all those who did not get the virus.

This too did not end well.

Watch the full Q&A with Professor Karim here:

Based on the outcomes of these and other countries' approaches, South African implemented the lockdown.

"That's the intensive curtailment of human interaction," Karim said.

The country that started this approach was China and it has worked, with the country reporting no local transmissions.

"When we wrote the motivation for the 21 days, we had good scientific rationale for that, and that rationale still stands," he added.

7. Could the lockdown be extended?

Karim said his team could only advise the government on whether the lockdown should be extended.

"The advice that we would give would be based on what we think the epidemiology is looking like and what the dynamics of the epidemic and the viral transmission looks like.

"But the decision about the lockdown is not about that only … [it] involves many different dimensions. There are social dimensions, economic dimensions, mental health dimensions."

He has also suggested the protection of the elderly as the lockdown is eased.

This would be better than allowing everyone to interact after the lockdown because this risks exposing low-risk people to high-risk people like the elderly.

8. A new normal

As his parting remarks, Karim shared sobering news to South Africans - there will be no return to normal once the lockdown ends.

"I am sorry to say that life is not going to be what it was like before. Our lives have changed since 5 March when we saw that first case. [Before] then, it was somebody else's problem.

"Our lives, when we go back after this lockdown, are simply not going to be the same.

"We are going to have to learn to live in a way where we will lose that soft touch that comes from being close to those we love, those we care about, because in order to protect them we are going to have to keep some distance," Karim said.

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