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SA detects new Covid-19 variant, implications not yet clear

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said it was too early to say whether the government would impose tougher restrictions in response to the variant.
Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South African scientists have detected a new Covid-19 variant in small numbers and are working to understand its potential implications, they said on Thursday.

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.

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Read: Africa CDC plans talks on new Covid variant in SA

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.

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% of new cases in Gauteng could be B.1.1.529, scientists believe.

“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.

South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a World Health Organisation (WHO) working group on virus evolution on 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.

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 and still only accounts for a small percentage of genomes sequenced in recent months.

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it’s going to do this every year. It’s what virusses do. Lockdown all you want it’s not going to make any difference.

Here’s the reality: only 24% of South Africans are fully vaccinated. The government’s goal (I know: joke!) was to get 70% of the population vaccinated by year-end. So we are totally losing this war against an enemy that NEVER sleeps and has ONE goal: to perpetuate itself.

We will continue to be punished severely by this virus until we realise that it is NO JOKE and start pushing people hard to get vaccinated by preventing them from accessing essential services unless they are vaccinated. No, its not an ideal solution but it is the BEST one we have to get this thing under control.

And yes, we are very likely going to need regular boosters to keep immunity where it needs to be. So what? Its a little jab every six months or so. Better that than ending up in the ICU! At this moment we are being soundly whipped by this virus. It is winning hands down and its just going to keep mutating.

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