South Africa is reporting both good and bad news in the battle against the coronavirus, seeing a decline in confirmed cases along with the spread of a new, more infectious strain of the virus.
First, the good news from South Africa’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize. The nation is still experiencing its second wave of the virus, but in the past week, Mkhize said, South Africa saw a 23% decline in confirmed cases.
“It has been encouraging to know that, despite the mutations, we are still able to protect ourselves with the armor that we have established,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “This week has seen some promising signs of decline in transmission – yesterday we noted a 23% decrease in new cases nationally compared to 7 days prior. This could be attributable to many factors, including enhanced physical distancing facilitated by lockdown regulations. We must thank South Africans for adhering to the regulations, difficult and frustrating as it may be.”
And now for the more concerning news. The head of the nation’s coronavirus task force, epidemiologist Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, says the recently detected, more infectious variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, is spreading quickly in South Africa.
“Its affinity and its ability to bind to the human cell is now stronger,” he said in a briefing late Monday. “And that's what enables it to become a more efficient virus in the way it transmits .... So this drastic change that we're seeing is being driven by a virus that certainly, biologically looks like it can attach to human cells more efficiently.”
But, he adds, scientists haven’t concluded that this variant is more severe. In fact, he said, current data suggests it is not.
And he quickly allayed fears that the 1.5 million vaccine doses expected to land in South Africa by February won’t work on this new strain.
“I will not even attempt to speculate on that matter,” he said. “I'll wait for the data. And certainly, we have no empirical evidence yet on whether vaccines are effective against this variant. Those studies are still under way.”
And, in a rare departure from science, Dr. Karim took a moment to talk politics, urging against calling this mutation the “South Africa variant.” When researchers first spotted this new variant, they were careful not to call it that in scientific papers. He explained why this matters.
“There are variants across the world,” he said. “And even if they were found in one country, we don't even know if that's where they originated from, and they will rapidly spread to many countries. The B.1.1.7 is now in almost 50 countries. The 501.V2 is already available in more than 10 countries. Just like how we objected when the U.S. president called SARS-Cov-2 'the China virus,' we should not call this variant by its country, we should call it by its name."
So what does all this new science mean for the average South African? Not much, doctors said. Their basic guidance remains the same: prevent transmission by staying home if you can, distance from others, wash your hands and always wear a mask in public.