Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Friday assured South Africans that there is no need to panic over the new variant of Covid-19 that was recently discovered by the local genomics scientists.
Mkhize made the announcement of the new variant during an elaborate press briefing on Friday evening where he was joined by the KZN Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp), which included Professor Tulio de Oliveira and Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
He said they noticed that a particular variant has increasingly dominated the findings of the samples collected in the past two month. The evidence also showed a shift in how the virus was spreading, “in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness”.
Mkhize said: “It is important to reiterate that while this mutation is a cause for concern, there is no reason to panic.”
He said the latest research findings underline the need for everyone to loyally adhere to the practice of no-pharmaceutical prevention measures — which include social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask — which he said were just as effective to a mutant variant of the same virus.
Mkhize said at this point there was no evidence to suggest a need to change the clinical treatment and patient management of Covid-19 in the second wave. “I have directed that the clinicians subcommittee of MAC [ministerial advisory committee] should monitor the situation and issue an advisory whenever the need for changing clinical treatment and patient management is deemed necessary.”
In terms of moving to stricter lockdown regulations, Mkhize said there was no need to do so since President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced more restrictions using a differentiated approach across the country.
“We implemented different containment measures depending on the infection spread such as hotspots and anticipated social behaviour during the festive season, as well as strengthening the effectiveness of our inspections and enforcement measures.”
Karim said the second wave was showing some early signs that it is spreading faster than the first wave. However, it was not yet clear if the second wave would have more or less deaths, as the severity of the new variant is still very unclear.
He warned against complacency in adhering to the precautionary measures to curb the spread of the virus, saying the number of infections indicated a rapid spread. He advised people to look after themselves.
In response to the second wave, Mkhize said they have directed that all provinces reactivate their resurgence plans and mount the appropriate response to the resurgence of Covid-19. These include ensuring the employment of nurses and doctors and all staff as needed, the reactivation of field hospital beds and preparing more ICU beds as in the earlier surge.
The minister did not anticipate any additional restrictions for people travelling in and out of the country.
Mkhize said research would continue on the new variant as there were still unanswered questions about how this discovery could impact on the spread and progression of Covid-19. He said they also did not know the implications on individuals previously infected and recovered, so they needed to ascertain if they would be reinfected by the variant.
There was also a question on the effectiveness of the current vaccine, however, Mkhize said in the meantime they would continue with the vaccine program as there was currently no evidence to do otherwise.
Mkhize said he was concerned about the reckless behaviour of young people. He said more young people are testing positive for Covid-19 in recent weeks than were detected in the first wave.
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He said clinicians have also cautioned the government that things had changed and that young, previously healthy people were now becoming very sick. He said despite all these warnings in the past couple of weeks, there were videos on social media of youngsters partying in large numbers, some even playing kissing games during these parties. They were also not wearing masks “and are clearly so intoxicated that they have thrown caution to the wind and do not care to observe rules under the state of disaster. It cannot be that our youth can only adhere to lifesaving measures by being policed”.
“We call on parents, caregivers and our youth to understand that this is now not just a matter of thinking about others, but you yourselves are now equally at risk of dying from Covid-19”.