South Africa should know the ‘real’ coronavirus numbers within a few weeks: expert

South Africa should know the true toll from the coronavirus pandemic within a few weeks, says the chairperson of the Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

In an interview with Associated Press, Karim said that the official death toll from Covid-19 is more than 15,700 – but the real number is likely more than 30,000 when deaths not recorded at hospitals are taken into account.

He said that a nationwide survey for the presence of antibodies to the virus will hopefully show results soon.

In a national address on Wednesday evening (16 September) president Cyril Ramaphosa said that government will be undertaking a nationwide survey to assess the actual levels of infection within society.

“This survey – known as a seroprevalence survey – uses antibody tests to see if a person has been exposed to the coronavirus,” the president said.

“A nationwide study would allow scientists to estimate the extent of asymptomatic infections and immunity within the population as well as better understand the transmission patterns of the virus.”

Karim said that South Africa reached its ‘peak caseload’ in mid-July, adding that the country is now seeing substantial declines in new confirmed cases, deaths and hospitalisations.

“We have a full cascade of indicators going consistently in the same downward direction. This gives me confidence that we are heading for a threshold of low transmission,” Abdool Karim said. “We are now in a good position to relax restrictions while remaining vigilant to respond to any signs of a second surge.”

Karim said that at its peak, South Africa saw an average of more than 12,000 new cases daily. The country is now averaging below 2,000 daily, and dropping.

“We should soon reach 580 new cases daily, which for our population of 58 million is considered by the World Health Organisation to be the threshold for low transmission,” he said.

Eased restrictions 

This drop in cases led to Ramaphosa announcing a move to a level 1 lockdown, further easing restrictions.

The president said that the country has ‘withstood the storm’ in its fight against the coronavirus and that the data shows a clear downward trend in the country.

However, he cautioned that ‘by any measure we are still in the midst of a deadly epidemic’ and said that the most important task is ensuring that the country is not hit by a second wave of infections as is being seen internationally.

Some of the eased restrictions include:

  • Gatherings will be allowed as long as the number of people do not exceed 50% of the normal capacity of a venue –  up to a maximum of 250 people for indoor gatherings and 500 people for outdoor gatherings;
  • The government will gradually ease restrictions on international travel for business and leisure from 1 October – subject to containment measures. A list of permitted countries will be published and based on the latest scientific data;
  • Alcohol for home consumption can be sold between 09h00 – 17h00 from Monday to Friday;
  • An evening curfew will apply between 00h00 and 04h00;

Ramaphosa said that this will be the ‘new normal’ and that updated restrictions will be gazetted over the next few days, providing more clarity.

Read: South Africa’s latest alcohol rules a ‘punch in the gut’

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South Africa should know the ‘real’ coronavirus numbers within a few weeks: expert