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New COVID-19 variant found in SA: What we know about the mutation

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that a new variant of COVID-19 is likely responsible for the surge in infections currently underway.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim have announced that the latest wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa is being driven by a mutated variant of the virus  that appears to be infecting more young people than the first wave of infections. 

 

During a briefing on Friday 18 December, Mkhize and Karim warned that the second wave had come sooner than expected and is spreading even faster than the first.

COVID-19 VARIANT ‘LARGELY AFFECTING YOUNG PEOPLE’ 

Mkhize said that a South African 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, and found that a variant of the SARS-COV-2 Virus- currently termed 501.V2 Variant has been identified.

“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 co-morbidities presenting with critical illness,” he said. 

 

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

Last week, the UK’s Health Minister Matt Hancock announced that a new variant of the coronavirus associated with faster spread had been identified in south-east England. The announcement led to a spate of concern about the potential for a “super strain” on the loose. 

According to New Scientist, there is much that still needs to be learnt about the COVID-19 variant, and that it is not necessarily something that should spark major despair in communities. Maize and Karim both said the same on Friday, insisting that they are working closely with KRISP to learn more about it. 

 

SECOND WAVE ‘WORSE THAN FIRST’ 

Karim said that what the country is now facing is potentially more devastating than what was initially feared. 

“What we are seeing now is that the rate of increase in cases is similar as the first wave but the second wave has now over shot the peak of the first wave,” he said. “The second wave has now hit all provinces with some early signs of it spreading faster than the first wave.”

“It is not clear if this second wave has more or less deaths. We have not seen any red flags looking at our current death information” 

He said that the new 501.V2 variant has become dominant in South Africa, and that it has three mutations. He added that South Africa is seeing a “much higher proportion of the new variant than the rest of the world”, and said that it likely originated in Nelson Mandela Bay, where the first sample was found. 

MHKIZE URGES PUBLIC TO OBEY PROTOCOLS

Mkhize said that while the second wave had been anticipated, the rate of spread has left health services somewhat shellshocked. He said that is timing is less than ideal too, with behaviour over the festive season likely to worsen the spread of the virus.

“We have noticed a degree of complacency with mask-wearing and hand sanitising,” he said. “The second wave is increasing during this season but we believe it is most likely to increase after this season. It may well have another bump where numbers are showing an increase.”

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