As the world slowly pulls out of the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic with increased vaccination, South African scientists have detected a new COVID-19 variant in small numbers, which is worse than the Delta variant.
They blame it for a surge in infection numbers. Daily infections shot to more than 1,200 cases on Wednesday, from around 100 earlier this month, raising fears of a fourth wave of the pandemic.
The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference, yesterday.
Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest the variant has rapidly increased in the most populated province of Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces, they said.
“Unfortunately, we have detected a new variant, which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference.
South Africa has confirmed around 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa. As many as 90 per cent of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe.
The first cases of the variant were collected in Botswana on November 11, and the earliest in South Africa was recorded three days later. The case found in Hong Kong was a 36-year-old man who had a negative PCR test before flying from Hong Kong to South Africa, where he stayed from October 22 to November 11. He tested negative on his return to Hong Kong, but tested positive on November 13, while in quarantine
“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement.
The country has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organisation (WHO) working group on virus evolution today (Friday) to discuss the new variant.
Health Minister, Joe Phaahla, said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant, adding that the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases.
South Africa has the highest pandemic numbers in Africa, notching up around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.
South Africa was the first country to detect the Beta variant last year. Beta is one of only four labelled “of concern” by the WHO because there is evidence that it is more contagious and vaccines work less well against it. The country detected another variant, C.1.2, earlier this year, but it has not displaced the more common Delta variant.
Prof. Helen Rees, of the WHO’s African Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group, urged people not to panic.
She said: “Currently, we are trying to identify how widely spread this is. There will be a lot of work looking at: Is it more transmissible? Is it associated with any more severity of disease? Does it render the vaccines less effective?
“In the meantime, our big request to the world, in terms of vaccinating the African region, is please get the vaccines out into the region because as we know variants don’t stay in one country,” she added.
BEFORE the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted a fourth wave to hit South Africa starting around the middle of December, buoyed by travels ahead of the festive season.
Also at the weekend, the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, raised the alarm over the imminent fourth wave of the COVID-19 in Nigeria. Abayomi said passengers coming into the country from high-burdened countries may likely increase the spread of the virus.
He said: “Many Nigerians staying abroad will be returning home to celebrate Christmas with their families. Most of these people will be coming from countries where there is a heavy burden of COVID-19 and where we know the virus is changing and mutating.
“The potential drivers of a fourth wave in Lagos and Nigeria are passengers arriving, especially from heavy-burdened countries in Europe and the United States into Lagos; 86 per cent of all inbound flights into Nigeria come through Lagos.
“It is only inevitable that if passengers are travelling in large numbers from these countries where they are about to experience a fourth and fifth wave, we should expect some activities in Lagos as a result of these movements. At the current rate of the response across the country, we are likely going to encounter a fourth wave of the COVID19 pandemic in December 2021.”
The commissioner lamented the low vaccination rate in Nigeria, saying many countries had vaccinated more than 50 per cent of their eligible populations.
“The other problem we have in Lagos and Nigeria is that our rate of vaccinations has been quite low; it is just below three per cent, whereas our target should be over 40 per cent. Many countries around the world have exceeded 50 per cent vaccination of eligible populations.”
THE WHO, yesterday, warned that being vaccinated against COVID-19 doesn’t mean that people can throw caution to the wind and put themselves and others at risk. The global health body advised that relaxing public health and social interventions should be done cautiously and with careful attention paid to those who remain unvaccinated.
Speaking at the second yearly conference of the Association of Nigeria Health Journalists (ANHEJ) in Keffi, Nasarawa State, WHO Nigeria Communication Officer, Charity Warigon, noted that COVID-19, unlike any pandemic in history, has affected everyone and every country in a manner unexpected, although there had been calls and available support to nations to build their health systems and security in preparation for future outbreaks.
She observed that in earlier phases of the pandemic, there was absence of sufficient knowledge to inform the development of vaccines as the sciences were limited, which were exploited by mischief makers, through what is known as infodemics.
“In the face of vaccine hesitancy, journalists covering health beats should do more by educating, mobilising and creating awareness among the populace. Our messaging must continue to remind the public that, for the foreseeable future, we must continue to wear masks, physically distance and avoid the crowd.”
Earlier, the President of ANHEJ, Mr. Hassan Zaggi, called on all Nigerians to go out and take the COVID-19 vaccines, as it is safe and efficacious.