A new coronavirus variant has recently been identified in South Africa and is believed to be driving the second wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced on 18 December that the new variant, named "501.V2 Variant", was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay by South Africa’s genomics scientists, although it is unknown whether it originated there. It appears to be spreading more quickly and with a higher viral load than the original virus.
In a media briefing, Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist, said that while the severity of the virus is still unclear, the rapid way in which this variant has become dominant in South Africa was largely unexpected. “While other viruses are still transmitting, this virus is spreading so much faster. When we take swabs, it is the dominant variant that we see. This may translate eventually into a second wave that may have many more cases than the first,” Karim speculated.
A higher viral load may translate into a higher efficiency of transmission, which will in turn lead to a higher basic reproductive number (R0) – the average number of infections produced by a single infectious person in a population with no immunity, Karim explained.
The new variant also appears to affect young people more than before. According to Mkhize, clinicians have noticed a shift in the “clinical epidemiological picture”, in particular noting that they are seeing more young people with no co-morbidities presenting with critical illness.
The new lineage has between 10 and 20 mutations that were not previously seen in viruses in the country before September 2020. The same variant has been identified in the UK and Australia; however, experts say that South Africa’s variant is much more widespread.
So far, experts agree that it is too early to tell if it is more severe than the original. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has encouraged the public to remain vigilant and to continue following COVID-19 hygiene protocols, including wearing masks in public, regularly washing or sanitising hands and maintaining a social distance of 1,5 m from others.
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