A third wave of COVID-19 is expected to hit South Africa soon, and government’s vaccination programme is unlikely to beat it in time.
This is according to Stellenbosch University virologist Professor Wolfgang Preiser, who was speaking to the Sunday Times.
“It is basically too slow to make an impact if the third wave strikes during the next few months, as some people fear,” said Preiser.
“On a population-wide basis, not enough people will have been vaccinated to make a dent into the next wave.”
Preiser said there may be some hope that since so many South Africans were infected in the first two waves, they may have a degree of immunity that lessens the severity of the third wave.
However, he added that since it is unclear how long any immunity actually lasts, South Africans should not rely on this to protect them.
Wits University expert Professor Shabir Madhi agrees that the vaccination programme is probably going to be too late to stop a third wave.
“As signs of a third wave are already emerging, it is unlikely we will get sufficient numbers of high-risk individuals vaccinated before the wave is fully established,” said Madhi.
He also noted that the first generation of vaccines is unlikely to be impactful against “infectiousness and mild infection.”
However, he believes that the fast rollout of vaccines could at least affect the number of hospitalisations and deaths in the third wave.
Government concerned about third wave
Health minister Zweli Mkhize expressed his concern regarding the increase in COVID-19 cases in South Africa over the past two weeks.
“We have noticed a worrying trend of increasing numbers of detected cases in a number of districts,” said Mkhize.
“The Free State, Gauteng, Northern Cape and North West are of particular concern but every province, with the notable exception of Eastern Cape, has at least one district of concern.”
He said it is as crucial than ever that South Africans follow “non-pharmaceutical interventions.”
“The government can facilitate and intervene but ultimately, we would rather concentrate on economic recovery rather than imposing more restrictions,” said Mkhize.
“Therefore, every citizen must adhere to the non-pharmaceutical interventions if we are to avoid further restrictions.”
On Saturday, Mkhize noted that the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) has detected 2 COVID-19 variants of concern:
- B.1.1.7 (first detected in the UK) – 11 cases.
- B.1.617.2 (first detected in India) – 4 cases.
All cases of the B.1.617.2 variant have been isolated and managed according to the relevant guidelines, and contact tracing has been performed to limit its spread.
B.1.1.7, however, has already been detected in three different provinces, and it has also been detected in community samples – suggesting that community transmission has already set in.
“NGS-SA remains vigilant as it continues to support the Department of Health,” said Mkhize.
“There are a number of other samples from cases with a history of recent travel into South Africa that are currently being sequenced and results are expected over the next few days.”
South Africa to procure Russian and Chinese vaccines
Mkhize has also confirmed plans to buy the Sputnik V and Sinopharm vaccines developed in Russia and China respectively.
Mkhize said on Wednesday 28 April that government would order 10 million doses of each vaccine.
“We are doing this now because we do expect the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority to approve those vaccines,” he said.
South Africa has also resumed the use of Johnson and Johnson vaccines after putting them on hold for two weeks because of fears that the vaccines are linked to blood clots.
South Africa has also secured vaccine shots from Pfizer and BioNTech.