New Covid-19 variant in SA? Yup, and here's what we know so far

21 December 2020 - 12:00
Prof Salim Abdool Karim has warned that the new coronavirus variant accounts for "between 80% and 90%" of new infections in SA - far higher than in other parts of the world. File photo.
Prof Salim Abdool Karim has warned that the new coronavirus variant accounts for "between 80% and 90%" of new infections in SA - far higher than in other parts of the world. File photo.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

SA is in its second wave of Covid-19 infections, and health experts and the health ministry have also warned about a new variant of the coronavirus.

Prof Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on the coronavirus, Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and health minister Zweli Mkhize, among other experts, gave a presentation about the new variant, known as SARS-Cov2 or 501.v2 Variant, on Friday.

Institutions including the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD), Krisp and the Centre for Aids Programme of Research in SA (Caprisa) collaborated on the research.

Here's what we know so far:

It is unusual and it spreads faster 

According to Abdool Karim, the 501 variant accounts for about 2% of approximately a quarter of a million sequences available.

“In our country at this time, we are finding between 80% and 90% of the viruses are this 501. We're seeing a much higher proportion than has been seen elsewhere in the world.

“We're seeing early signs the new variant is spreading fast, sometimes faster than the first-wave viruses.”

Where was the new variant first detected in SA? 

De Oliveira said the new variant emerged in Nelson Mandela Bay and has spread to nearby areas in the province, the Garden Route and locations in KwaZulu-Natal.

Abdool Karim said this does not mean the variant originated in the district.

"We don't know where it came from and we don't know why it formed. We found the first in Nelson Mandela Bay, but we don't know if it originated in Nelson Mandela Bay. It is too early to tell if it is more severe."

501.v2 Variant could result in second wave with more cases than the first 

Abdool Karim said preliminary results have shown this variant is associated with a higher viral load.

He said speculation about the implications include:

  • Higher viral load in swabs may translate to higher efficiency of transmission.
  • This may translate to a higher R0. This means one person who is infected could infect a higher number of people.
  • The variant is transmitting faster than other viruses.

Number of infections likely to increase after the festive season

Mkhize said among concerns noted by the department is that infections are likely to increase after the festive season as more people are expected to travel between provinces in January.

He said there was also a new pattern of increased cases among youths aged between 14 and 19 years.

“The second wave is increasing during this season. We believe it was most likely to increase after this season because we have people coming together and there has been a lot of movement of people between provinces.

“That movement will be reversed early in the new year, so we may have another bump in which in the numbers show an increase.” 


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