Highly infectious Delta Covid variant is ripping through South Africa: health department

Acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has confirmed that the highly infectious Delta variant of Covid-19 is likely behind the current surge in new cases in South Africa, with new data showing that the variant is rapidly becoming the dominant one in the country.

As of 25 June, 18,726 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the country, the bulk of which – 11,777 cases – were in Gauteng. The country recorded 215 new deaths, with active cases sitting at 145,904.

In a media briefing on Saturday (26 June), the minister reiterated that the country is in a third wave, with infections rapidly rising. Gauteng continues to be the epicentre of the wave, she said.

“We remain very worried about the rise in hospitalisation, which is putting a lot of pressure on the healthcare system – we expect this trend to continue in other provinces,” she said.

She noted that while initial modelling predicted that the peak of the third wave would be lower than that of the second wave, this was based on the assumption that the country would not suffer a new variant.

This has now been proven not to be the case, she said, with South Africa’s scientists acknowledging that the Delta variant – first discovered in India – is spreading in the country.

The Delta variant has been found to be highly transmissible due to several mutations in the virus. It has spread extremely quickly since its discovery and has now entered 85 countries.

The key features of the Delta variant are:

  • Transmissibility: highly transmissible – more than all other variants (between 30% to 60% more transmissible);
  • Severity: no clear evidence yet;
  • Risk of reinfection: there is a reduction in neutralisation with serum from people infected with the Beta variant – ie, people who were infected with the Beta variant could possibly be reinfected with the Delta variant. However, more information is still needed here;
  • Vaccines: No evidence of vaccine escape – so vaccines still give high levels of protection against severe cases.

The key symptoms of the virus include headache, sore throat, runny nose and sneezing. These should be monitored on top of other symptoms associated with the Covid-19 coronavirus, such as fever, loss of sense of taste and smell, etc.

Director of the Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), professor Tulio de Oliviera said that not only is the Delta variant spreading rapidly in the country, it is also becoming the dominant variant in the country.

KRISP data shows that until fairly recently South Africa’s Covid cases were dominated by the Beta variant, first discovered in South Africa. Over time, other variants slowly made their way into the country, including the Alpha (UK) variant and the Delta (Indian) variant.

However, based on localised information in KwaZulu-Natal, it is clear that the Delta variant now dominates.

Data is still being compiled on the variants in other provinces, and more information is expected in the next few days De Oliviera said, but all things point to the Delta variant being the dominant cause of infection at present.

Tighter restrictions needed

Professor Koleka Mlisana, co-chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said that tighter restrictions are needed to combat the new variant.

She said that the Delta variant introduces new challenges and variables to South Africa’s prevention strategies – in particular, the Delta variant is highly transmissible and spreads through interaction, so the government will need to put tighter restrictions on gatherings.

Kubayi-Ngubane said that the department has made presentations to the president on the spread of the Delta variant, and meetings with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) will address this.

The NCCC is expected to meet on Sunday, the minister said.

She said there is a belief among officials that the current level of restrictions is not adequate to face the severity of the challenges presented by the variant. She appealed to citizens, particularly those in Gauteng, to avoid social gatherings and to abide by lockdown and social distancing protocols.


Read: Weekend meeting to decide new lockdown restrictions for South Africa

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Highly infectious Delta Covid variant is ripping through South Africa: health department