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'Most will get it': Top SA virologist's warning on Covid-19

08 May 2020 - 06:00 By Bobby Jordan
A man is screened for Covid-19 - a disease most people will catch, according to Stellenbosch University virologist Wolfgang Preiser.
A man is screened for Covid-19 - a disease most people will catch, according to Stellenbosch University virologist Wolfgang Preiser.
Image: 123rf/Petro Perutskyi

Most people will catch Covid-19 but the majority will not get seriously ill, says one of SA’s top virologists.

Efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus could already be helping to reduce other illnesses, such as influenza, said Wolfgang Preiser, head of medical virology at Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg National Health Laboratory Service.

“Ultimately most people will get [Covid-19], hopefully over many months to a few years and not all at once, and most will have mild disease and recover without problems,” he said.

“But there will be a proportion who will be very ill and some will die, and not all of those will be people in the risk groups. Once a friend is seriously ill in hospital, everyone will change their minds.”

Preiser told TimesLIVE he was cautiously optimistic the measures in place to combat Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could also help combat other harmful diseases affecting the general population.

“There is some evidence that there is less influenza than expected already, and perhaps there will be a reduction in diarrhoea, too. Whether that will also translate into less TB remains to be seen, as it is normally not an acute onset illness,” he said.

“A reason for hope is in my mind also that our health care systems are geared up for HIV and TB mass programmes, and I would hope that the same type of structures, etc, will also be used and work against Covid. Improved infection control measures for TB patients should also help addressing Covid.”

Informal part-time work is the bread and butter of many foreign migrant workers in SA. They travel to SA to look for jobs, work for a few months and head back home with some money for themselves and their families. A group of men from Lesotho who came to SA for that reason are now stranded in the country for much longer than they expected thanks to the lockdown.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser
Prof Wolfgang Preiser
Image: Stellenbosch University

Preiser said he was unconvinced that the BCG vaccine rolled out as part of the national vaccine programme since 1973 would afford protection against Covid-19. However he welcomed news of a trial at Tygerberg Hospital.

He said general measures such as wearing cloth masks in public and frequent handwashing would hopefully assist the fight against other infectious diseases, even in overcrowded informal areas where self-quarantine and self-isolation were impossible.

René English, head of the Centre for Health Systems Strengthening at Stellenbosch University, said a more detailed study of available data was needed to understand what was driving the epidemic, particularly in the Western Cape which has about half the total positive cases and Covid-19-related deaths.

“Additional factors such as population density and spatial distribution of our communities, how and where people are transported to and from their workplaces, and community-level responses in terms of practising social distancing are additional factors that promote the spread of the virus,” English said.

“At this stage, however, the numbers are too small and it will require a more detailed analysis of the case and contact data to determine which factors are fuelling the increased numbers of cases in the Western Cape.”

René English
René English
Image: Stellenbosch University

English said impoverished communities, in addition to facing heightened risk due to overcrowding, were largely unable to afford basic items like sanitiser and masks.

“Through my discussion with community members, for many, the decisions that they have to make centres around what to spend the little money they have on — food, soap or cloth masks?

“Sadly for the vast majority, there is no money to buy any of these. Furthermore, access to information is a challenge. Many community members do not have phones or data or access to radios,” English said.

“What this means is that all sectors of society will have to work closely with communities in a respectful and collaborative way to ensure that where possible, behavioural change can occur at the level of the individual and these changes can then have an effect in their homes, workplaces and other spaces in which they find themselves.

“This bottom-up approach coupled with the various top-down approaches will ensure that we as a society can combat the impact of the pandemic on our communities.”