Health minister Joe Phaahla says that the discovery of the new B.1.1.529 Covid variant is still ‘very fresh news’ and has caught the government by surprise, with health officials and scientists still monitoring the situation to determine how it could impact South Africa.
Phaahla said that the government was only fully briefed on the new variant on Thursday morning (25 November) and expects to receive further data over the weekend.
He added that meetings will be held with government officials, president Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet, and the National Coronavirus Command Council in the coming days to discuss possible intervention measures and restrictions.
While Phaahla said that it was too early to predict what the exact line of action will be, he noted that the government has learnt a number of lessons over the past 21 months on what causes a Covid-19 wave to emerge and how to prevent the spread of a new variant.
He specifically noted an increase in travel out of Gauteng over the December holiday period as a possible cause of concern.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira said that the variant caught authorities and experts by surprise.
“This variant did surprise us and it has many more mutations than expected,” he said. “It is spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) issued an alert on Thursday (25 November), confirming that the variant has been detected in the country, with more cases to be confirmed as sequencing results come out.
The NICD warned that detected cases of the new variant and the number of people testing positive are both increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, the North West and Limpopo.
“It is not surprising that a new variant has been detected in South Africa,” said Professor Adrian Puren, NICD acting executive director. “Although the data is limited, our experts are working overtime with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be.”
He assured the public that the situation was being monitored and that the public would be kept up to date. Provincial health authorities remain on high alert and are prioritising the sequencing of positive samples, he said.