The new Covid-19 strain — what we know so far

Health minister said Tshwane metro in Gauteng registered the highest number of infections, with other parts of the province likely to see a rise

26 November 2021 - 13:30
Signs of a possible Covid-19 fourth wave have been spotted in Gauteng. Stock photo.
Signs of a possible Covid-19 fourth wave have been spotted in Gauteng. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/perig76

The department of health and scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in SA on Thursday announced the detection of a new Covid-19 variant called B.1.1.529.

Health minister Joe Phaahla said the rise in infections of the new variant started just more than a week ago.

He said the Tshwane metro in Gauteng had registered the highest number of infections, with other parts of the province likely to see a rise.

Here are five things we know so far.

Not a SA variant 

KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) genome sequencer Prof Tulio de Oliveira cautioned against calling the new variant a SA variant, saying it would be assigned its official name by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“The variant has been found in Botswana and Hong Kong from travellers in SA. The variant has increased in Gauteng and may have spread in other provinces,” said De Oliveira.

Where is it most prevalent?

Most cases of the new variant were detected in Gauteng although it is increasing in other provinces, said Dr Richard Lessells of Krisp. He said while scientists can make some predictions about the impact of mutations, their full significance is still being assessed.

“Vaccines remain critical in the protection against severe disease and protecting the health system from another surge and cases,” said the health minister. 

Can the vaccine protect me from the new variant? 

Wits University virologist Penny Moore said it would take weeks to get data confirming whether the new variant could evade the body’s immunity after previous infection or vaccination.

“Many of the mutations of this variant are mutations we know well. We know they are likely associated with immune escape. To get data from the laboratory experiments will probably take a few weeks,” she said. 

She said non-pharmaceutical interventions must be followed for continued protection. 

Low infections might not be a reality this festive season 

Phaahla said the spike in infections was unexpected as the experts had predicted it to occur around mid-to-late December. He said the new variant was initially thought to be cluster outbreaks of the Delta variant before the new variant was identified. 

“This new enemy is unpredictable. If we have many people indoors or outdoors, make sure washing of hands and sanitising is maintained. We have an additional tool, which is vaccination to help us avoid serious illness,” said the minister. 


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