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South Africa Sees New Virus Variant, But Stresses: Don’t Panic

A nurse from Lancet Nectare hospital (R) performs a COVID-19 coronavirus test in Richmond, South Africa, Dec. 18, 2020. (Photo by LUCA SOLA / AFP)
A nurse from Lancet Nectare hospital (R) performs a COVID-19 coronavirus test in Richmond, South Africa, Dec. 18, 2020. (Photo by LUCA SOLA / AFP)

South African health officials say the nation’s new COVID-19 wave is driven by a new variant of the coronavirus. But they say if there is one overarching message about the new variant, it is this: don’t panic.

In recent days, South Africa has seen a strong second wave, with the government documenting about 9,000 new cases a day. That leaves the nation, Africa’s epicenter for the virus, with nearly 350,000 confirmed cases since March, and nearly 25,000 deaths.

Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize said epidemiologists expect to see a further rise as many South Africans return to work in January from a monthlong summer holiday. However, he said there is no need for a change in strategy.

“There’s no need to panic, to think that there's some new treatment that we’re going to need, or at this point to ask the question as to whether any of the treatment that has been used is going to be effective or not,” he said at a virtual briefing Friday. “At the moment, it has been effective even before we knew that there was a variant. So we want to keep that as a matter of reassurance to the public,” he said.

South African Medical Association chairperson, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, said doctors have noticed one “major” difference with regard to the variant.

“Where in the past the younger people was not really that sick, we are now seeing that people, especially overweight people, round about the age between 20 and 30, are also in ICU with severe inflammation from this virus,” she said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said Monday the new variant is no stronger than the original.

"In the past few days, there have been reports of new variants in South Africa and the United Kingdom,” he said. “Viruses mutate over time; that's natural and expected. The U.K. has reported that this new variant transmits more easily, but there is no evidence so far that it is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality," he said.

The chair of South Africa’s advisory committee on the coronavirus, Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, said Friday the nation’s top sequencing lab found this new strain in about 90 percent of new cases. This, he stressed, is typical of viruses: they generally evolve to become more transmissible — but also, less severe.

He said the second wave is so far showing signs that it is spreading faster than the first wave. But is it stronger and deadlier? So far, he said, there are no signs of that.

He also noted that experts are studying whether the new vaccines will work on the new variant. So far, he said, the data is inconclusive. On Tuesday, the health department announced that the government had made a $19 million down payment to the international vaccine alliance. Those funds will go toward providing 6 million doses —which will cover about 10 percent of the population.

Karim stressed that the single best strategy is to give the virus no quarter and starve it into submission.

“The current diagnostics are still effective,” he said. “Our current strategies of social distancing, hand hygiene, symptom checking, mask wearing — all of them remain the basic strategies of prevention for this virus.”

Professor Richard Lessells of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform in Durban is one of the scientists who identified the new varient.

“It’s highly unlikely that it would have any different clinical symptoms. There’s no reason to believe that and that wouldn’t fit with our understanding. But one of our concerns is could there be a difference in the progression of the disease and a more aggressive disease course,” he said.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases has posted a list of frequently asked questions about on the new variant on its website,

Meanwhile, here’s what it comes down to: wash your hands. Keep your distance from others. Stay home, if you can. Essentially, treat this new strain the same as the old one, keep calm, and carry on.

(Darren Taylor contributed to this story.)