Deadlier coronavirus variant ravaging Gauteng

A deadlier, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus first detected in India is the likeliest explanation for the current surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations in Gauteng.

This is according to Professor Shabir Madhi, director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit at Wits University, who was speaking to news channel eNCA.

“All indications unfortunately are that we are probably dealing with the spread of a new variant — the Delta variant in particular,” Mahdi stated.

This, combined with waning immunity among those who already caught the virus, is the most probable reason for the surge in Covid-19 cases in South Africa, he said.

Mahdi explained that the Delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the Beta variant of the coronavirus.

The Beta variant is the one that was first detected in South Africa, and which was most prevalent during (and after) South Africa’s second wave of Covid-19 infections.

It is also more virulent — meaning that it results in a greater likelihood of developing serious disease, he said.

On Friday evening, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported that there were 18,762 new Covid-19 cases identified in South Africa, bringing the positivity rate to 25.5%. There were also another 215 Covid-19 related deaths reported.

Of the new cases reported in South Africa, Gauteng accounted for 11,777 of them — nearly 63% of all new cases.

Number of new coronavirus cases in Gauteng (25 June 2021), via gpcoronavirus.co.za

“The magnitude of this is completely unexpected and the worst part is that this is not yet the peak of these hospitalisations,” said Mahdi.

“In all likelihood, the peak of the hospitalisations will only occur in the next 2–3 weeks, including the number of people that are dying. That number is going to continue increasing, which is really concerning.”

While the NICD has not yet released data on which variants of the coronavirus are most prevalent in this wave of infections, Mahdi said that they are expecting some data from the agency next week.

He explained that another factor likely contributing to the surge of cases in Gauteng was that those who had previously caught a different variant of the virus may have lost some of their immunity over time.

Gauteng also did not have as severe an outbreak as other provinces during South Africa’s second wave of infections.

This means there are probably fewer people in Gauteng who were recently infected compared to the country’s coastal regions, which were hit the hardest during the second wave.

A study conducted in Gauteng before the peak of the second wave last year found that around 30% of the population had been infected and developed antibodies for the coronavirus.

However, these individuals may have started losing their immunity.

“The only way to explain what we’re currently experiencing is probably the seeding of the new [Delta] variant coupled with the waning of immunity,” said Madhi.

“But importantly, individuals that have been previously infected — by and large — will still remain protected against severe disease.”

Mahdi said that the most important thing that can be done to slow the rate of transmission of the virus is to simply ban all mass gatherings.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re ten or fifty people — in a poorly ventilated space those ten or fifty people are going to contribute to hundreds of other infections… particularly if they’re not wearing face masks,” he said.

“Management of mass gatherings is probably [our] single most effective tool.”

Asked if a protest organised by the EFF outside the head office of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) in Pretoria was a superspreader event, Mahdi said: “Absolutely, unfortunately.”

He said that the EFF’s demonstration showed that South Africa needs to reconsider whether it goes into “election mode”.

“If that is the type of behaviour that we should come to expect of political parties then we are just setting ourselves up for another disaster.”

EFF March to Save Lives — protest at the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority in Pretoria (25 June 2021)

The EFF marched on Sahpra’s offices to protest the fact that the organisation has not yet approved the Russian Sputnik V and Chinese Coronavac vaccines for use in South Africa.

Sahpra announced on 21 June that its evaluation of the Coronavac vaccine, which is manufactured by Sinovac, is at “a very advanced stage.”

It said that the application for the use of Sputnik V in South Africa is a rolling review. “As data becomes available to the applicant it is submitted to Sahpra,” the regulator stated.

“Sahpra only reviews products submitted to the regulator by a local applicant. If no application has been submitted, no regulatory review can be undertaken,” it added.

“Thus, there is no Sahpra decision on, for example, the Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines which have a WHO Emergency Use Listing, as there have not been any applications for these vaccines in South Africa.”

Several experts have called on the national government to urgently increase the lockdown alert level in South Africa — further restricting alcohol sales and mobility, and strict restrictions on gatherings.

However, many have warned against a hard lockdown. Experts advising the Gauteng Command Council have suggested that a hybrid between the restrictions of a level 3 and a level 4 lockdown would be most effective.

“[A level 5 lockdown] will have a disastrous effect on the economy and people’s livelihoods. It’s also quite late in the pandemic trajectory to expect to see a big impact,” Doctor Mary Kawonga said at a public presentation of the Gauteng Command Council on Thursday.

Hopes that President Cyril Ramaphosa would increase the lockdown alert level before the weekend were dashed by a statement from the Director-General of the Government Communications and Information System, Phumla Williams.

“Please ignore any message doing the rounds on any level changes,” William posted on Twitter.

“NCCC is only scheduled to meet next week [Tuesday, 29 June].”

Now read: Using Ivermectin to treat Covid-19 can reduce severe disease – study

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Deadlier coronavirus variant ravaging Gauteng