Health Minister, Dr. Joe Phaahla, has confirmed that a new COVID-19 variant has been detected in South Africa. The Minister, who was speaking during a media briefing on Thursday, believes that the new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.529, may have been tied to the recent cluster outbreaks in Gauteng.
“You can be rest assured that as people move in the next coming weeks, this [variant] will be all over,” said Phaahla. According to the renowned bioinformatician, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the variant has also been identified in Botswana, and Hong Kong involving a traveller from South Africa.
The variant, which was discovered through collaborative efforts with private laboratories and the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) members, is said to have a high number of mutations.
“What we see is this very unusual constellation of mutations, multiple mutations across the genome with more than 30 mutations,” he told the media.
According to the Professor, the Delta variants, which was responsible for the deadly third wave, had two mutations, while the Beta had three.
“This is concerning for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” he said, adding that this variant may already be present in most provinces. However, according to the scientist, the full significance is still uncertain.
He said the team was meeting with the World Health Organisation on Friday and are expecting to get a Greek name for this variant as the other ones. “It’s very important to understand that even though the variant was detected here [it] doesn’t mean that this variant is from South Africa.”
Infectious Diseases Specialist, Dr Richard Lessells, said: “When this variant was detected, we [could] see this large number of mutations across all the different proteins of this virus”.
While some of them are familiar, many of them are not. “We see a lot of mutations in the spike protein that might affect how well the virus is neutralised,” Lessells said. He also raised an alarm that mutations may give the virus enhanced transmissibility from one person to the next.
“And all these things are what gives us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the of the immune system and the protection that we have in our immune system.”
The variant has been found in Gauteng, according to Lessells, because that is where they have been focusing sampling and sequencing. “However, this is not isolated to Gauteng at this moment.”
In addition, he said the Lancet and National Health Laboratory Service have also noticed the rapid rise in tests that are positive in recent weeks, but also this mutation in the spike protein “It gives us concern that this variant may already be circulating quite widely in the country.”
One of the key questions, according to the scientists, is around vaccines and whether this variant affects that protection at all. “We can make predictions but we will only know for real by doing the studies during the laboratory,” said Lessells.
Another pressing issue involves the severity of disease in vaccinated people as well, he said.
“What is the severity of the disease and is that still predominantly a milder disease?”
However, he emphasised that vaccines remain the critical tool for protecting citizens from severe disease and protecting the health system from another surge in cases.
“While we had hoped for a very long recess in terms of low infections so that we can have a lot of more opening up of activities, this has just descended on us,” said the Minister.
Phaahla urged citizens to avoid crowds, wear masks, wash hands, sanitise and vaccinate.“The fact of the matter is that we also have an additional tool, which is the vaccination, which will help us to avert serious illness and ending up in hospitals, ICU and succumbing to this virus,” said the Minister.