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New strain of coronavirus identified, says South Africa’s health minister

Image Source : AP

South African Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize, takes delivery of emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said that a new strain of the novel coronavirus has been identified which was spreading faster, driving the second wave of the pandemic the country was going through. He said people should be concerned about this new variant of the virus, but there was no reason to panic.

As South Africans headed towards holiday destinations or their ancestral rural homes for the festive season, the minister said there was concern that the novel coronavirus was affecting many young people and those with no comorbidities, who were among those least at risk in the early days of the pandemic.

“We have convened this public briefing today to announce that a variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus — currently termed 501.V2 Variant — has been identified by our genomics scientists here in South Africa,” Mkhize said told reporters.

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

Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced more stringent measures in some coastal provinces, including closure of the beaches which normally thousands of holidaymakers would pack out, as daily infections rose exponentially in the past week.

By Friday, there were over 9,000 new cases and 184 deaths reported due to COVID-19.

“I’m afraid we do not have good news for you. Our second wave is now well and truly on the rise in all our (nine) provinces,” said Prof Salim Abdool Karim, the head of the government’s Coronavirus Command Council.

He said it was too early to tell if the new strain was more severe than the first or whether it was re-infecting people who got infected in the first wave.

“We have two laboratories which are already growing the virus and we will start doing studies to answer that question. Once we’ve grown the virus, we will add in convalescence serum from those patients who recovered from the virus in the first wave to see whether it neutralises the virus,” Prof Karim said.

He added that studies were currently underway to see whether the vaccines that have been developed would be effective against the new strain.

“Importantly, the same diagnostic tests, same strategies, and the same treatments work against this variant,” Mkhize said, adding another area of concern was that there would be a jump in cases when people return from their holidays in January.

“We should be concerned about it but there is no reason to panic. We have identified this new variant but it is important to emphasise on non-pharmaceutical interventions that work — wearing masks, using sanitisers and maintaining social distancing.

“Because those have worked effectively for COVID-19 and they will work as effectively for the new variant because it’s the behaviour of the virus that we are actually targeting,” the minister said.

Mkhize called on the media and the public not to spread disinformation about the new variant of the virus because the clinical treatment would be the same.

“There has been no evidence to suggest that we need to change any of the clinical treatments and if there would be a need for such, we will talk about it at that point.”

The health minister confirmed that there would be no additional restrictions to those already announced by Ramaphosa.

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