- The health department said it's not yet able to confirm a case of a highly-transmissible subvariant of Covid-19.
- The first case was reported in a series of tweets by Covid-19 scientist Prof Tulio de Oliveira.
- The department has said it is investigating the claim but is yet to receive a patient profile.
Claims that South Africa has recorded its first case of a highly-transmissible subvariant of the Covid-19 virus are under investigation by the Department of Health. However, until it has more information, the department cannot confirm if a case has been recorded.
Health department spokesperson Foster Mohale said the announcement had originated within the scientific community and not from the department. He added that the department has yet to receive any information on the patient profile, including age, gender and the province in which they were tested.
"It's very difficult to confirm a case without the patient profile. We don't want to dismiss that there is a case, but we need more information before we can make a formal public announcement," he said.
Mohale urged the public to remain calm but urged them to be vigilant and vaccinate.
In a series of tweets, Prof Tulio de Oliveira, Professor of Bioinformatics at the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University, said the first case of the XBB.1.5 subvariant had been identified on Friday by Stellenbosch University and the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa.
First XBB.1.5 detected in SA today by Stellenbosch University, Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA). XBB.1.5 = 1% (1/97 of recent genomes). Isolate from 27-Dec-2022. Interesting, two others assigned as BA.2.75 with extra Spike F486P mutation. Tweet 1/2— Tulio de Oliveira (@Tuliodna) January 6, 2023
De Oliveira added that the case had been recorded in the Western Cape, which was "not surprising, given the number of international tourists". He added that the subvariant is "still Omicron and SA has good population immunity".
This case is in the WC, not surprising, given the number of international tourists. But this is 1/100 genomes, at very low prevalence (1%), it is still Omicron and SA has good population immunity.— Tulio de Oliveira (@Tuliodna) January 7, 2023
De Oliveira was not available for further comment at the time of publication.
Western Cape Department of Health's chief of operations Dr Saadiq Kariem said the department would be monitoring the emergence of the new sub-variant "very closely".
"Thus far we have not detected any increase in cases, hospitalisations, admissions, or deaths," said Kariem.
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"We encourage the public to get vaccinated and for those eligible to get booster doses."
In a tweet on Saturday, the department said it has been alerted about the "highly transmissible variant" and is currently in discussions with scientists "to gather more information, including its transmissibility and severity".
.@HealthZA has been alerted about this highly transmissable XBB.1.5 variant and is currently in discussions with scientists to gather more information including its transmissibility and severity. Thus, an official communication will be made in due course. #COVID19— Department of Health (@HealthZA) January 7, 2023
Only a day later, in a statement, the department lashed out over "a misleading message circulating through social media platforms attributed to the Ministry of Health, calling for everyone to wear a mask because of the alleged detection of a new variant of concern".
"The fact of the matter is, the World Health Organisation has issued a notification in October  on the Omicron sublineages BQ.1 and XBB detected around the world as part of ongoing work to track variants by Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE)," the department said.
News24 previously reported that the variant was discovered in a gene sequencing sample from 27 December 2022.
The strain has been dubbed "the most transmissible subvariant" detected so far in the pandemic and has been nicknamed the "kraken variant" by some for its ability to spread. XBB.1.5 has quickly become the dominant strain in the US and has been detected in at least 28 other countries, according to the WHO.
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In its statement, the department said there is no epidemiological evidence that these sublineages will be of "substantially greater risk" than other Omicron sublineages.
"The department, working with the NICD and other scientists, continues to monitor all Covid-19 lineages, and appeals to South Africans to continue to be vigilant as they embark on festive season activities. The known Covid-19 virus variants are still in circulation, and we are not off the hook from the pandemic… hence people are urged to vaccinate and take booster shots that they qualify for to enhance their level of immunity."