South African genomic scientists have identified a variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus, currently termed 501.V2 variant.

“This genomics team, led by the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), has sequenced hundreds of samples from across the country since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

“They noticed that a particular variant has increasingly dominated the findings of the samples collected in the past two months,” said Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, on Friday, December 18.

In addition to the 501.V2 variant, Mkhize said clinicians have been providing anecdotal evidence of a shift in the clinical epidemiological picture, in particular noting that they are seeing a larger proportion of younger patients with no comorbidities, presenting with critical illness.

“The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,” said the Minister.

The team at KRISP, led by Professor Tulio de Oliviera, shared its findings with the World Health Organisation and the scientific community at large.

Through KRISP sharing its findings, the UK was alerted to South Africa’s variant, upon which the UK then studied their own samples and found that a similar mutation on the same site that is the 501 site was the variant that was driving the resurgence in London.

Following these findings, the UK Parliament announced a lockdown that was instituted in London to curb the spread of this variant.

“This is the calibre of our own scientists here in South Africa and we are extremely proud to once again demonstrate leadership in the COVID-19 response on a world stage,” said the Minister.

Mkhize reiterated that while this mutation is a cause for concern, there is no reason to panic.

He appealed to all the media and medical and scientific community to focus on the facts and avoid entering into speculation or issue unproven statements, and generate panic and disinformation.

“This research underlines the need for all of us all to loyally adhere to the practice of non-pharmaceutical interventions, which work as effectively in any pandemic of this nature, including COVID-19 as we have known it, and is just as effective to a mutant variant of the same virus

“Nothing will beat the rigid implementation of wearing of masks use of hand sanitiser and washing with soap and distancing.

“This discovery does not necessitate additional measures. There will be no basis to change purely based on this report,” said the Minister.

Based on surveillance and intensive monitoring reports which guide the country’s response, the Minister said government will declare new districts as hotspots as they reach the threshold and continue to monitor how these increases impact on health service and health care workers.

Provinces directed to reactivate resurgence plans

In response to the second wave, the Health Department directed that all provinces reactivate their resurgence plans and mount the appropriate response to the resurgence of COVID-19 by ensuring:

·        adequate Human Resources for health – employment of nurses and doctors and all staff that is needed;

·        reactivation of the field hospital beds;

·        preparing more ICU beds as in the earlier surge and

·        provision of adequate oxygen and oxygen delivery tools.

Research underway to determine possible re-infection

In light of the discovery of the 501.V2 variant, the Minister directed that more work be done to clarify the implications for individuals previously infected and recovered to ascertain if they would be re-infected by the variant.

“We currently have no information and we must avoid speculation but wait for research. There will also be further research to ascertain if the current vaccines will be effective on the new variant.

“We shall continue with the vaccine programme, as there is no evidence to do otherwise and scientific research will clarify that. Before that happens, there is no new action needed and no evidence to change the approach,” said the Minister.

With warnings from clinicians that it is mostly young people testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, Mkhize pleaded with the youth to desist from careless behaviour and adhere to COVID-19 protocols.

“Our clinicians have also warned us that things have changed and that younger, previously healthy people are now becoming very sick. Despite all these warnings in the past couple of weeks, we continue to see recent videos on social media of youth partying in large numbers, even some playing kissing games during these parties,” he said.

The Minister called on the youth to take care and find alternative ways of having safe fun this festive season.

“The situation can be contained and it all depends on our ability and commitment to change behaviour.

“We will continue to update and keep the public informed on any further developments,” he said. 

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