Deadlier coronavirus variant in South Africa — Ramaphosa to address nation on Sunday

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to address South Africa on Sunday evening following a special meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), News24 reported.

This follows a media briefing from acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who said that the NCCC convened on Saturday to receive a report from scientists on the prevalence of the Delta variant in South Africa.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus was first detected in India, and is more transmissible and more virulent than the Beta variant, which has been the dominant variant in South Africa.

“Out of that a decision has been taken for the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) to consider whether the restrictions that we currently have are sufficient,” Kubayi-Ngubane stated.

“There is a belief that the current restrictions, especially when we deal with Gauteng, are not sufficient.”

The NCCC will meet again on Sunday morning, followed by several other meetings, she said.

Kubayi-Ngubane explained that if the NCCC agrees with the recommendations from NATJOINTS to increase lockdown restrictions in South Africa, that will be taken to the Presidential Coordinating Council (PCC).

The PCC includes premiers, executive mayors, and traditional leaders.

Following these meetings, a special Cabinet meeting will be held to deal with the recommendations from the NATJOINTS.

Kubayi-Ngubane’s comments come after Professor Shabir Madhi told news channel eNCA last night that the only way to explain the surge in cases currently being seen in Gauteng is if the Delta variant is spreading in communities.

Madhi is the director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit at Wits University.

“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.”

Mahdi 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.”

Shabir Madhi headline
Shabir Madhi, director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit at Wits University

Experts such as Mahdi and Professor Salim Abdool Karim have advised that the most important thing government can do to slow the rate of transmission of the coronavirus is to severely limit gatherings and travel.

In a separate interview with eNCA on Thursday, Karim suggested that indoor gatherings should be severely restricted, saying that any indoor activity of ten people or more should be considered risky.

This includes temporarily shutting down indoor dining in restaurants and only allowing them to have outdoor activities.

“All non-essential travel should be put off — at least for the next two weeks or so,” he said.

Regarding the issue of alcohol restrictions, Karim said that it was too late for a ban on the sale of alcohol to help free beds in hospitals as we approach the peak of the pandemic.

“We should have actually deal with alcohol a while ago,” said Karim.

“You really have to act on alcohol to clear the hospitals. If we’re going to act on alcohol now, we’re probably only going to see the benefits in about a week or two.”

He said that by then, the benefits would be marginal.

However, Karim said that the number of active Covid-19 cases in Gauteng and elsewhere in South Africa will still be quite high after the pandemic peak, and there is therefore some benefit to increasing alcohol restrictions.

“The higher priority for me is to ensure that all the indoor activities, especially indoor activities where people do not have masks — those should really be stopped and curtailed as a matter of urgency.”

Now read: Covid-19 variants of concern — and what we know about them

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Deadlier coronavirus variant in South Africa — Ramaphosa to address nation on Sunday