With the rollout of the much-awaited Covid-19 vaccination programme having hardly begun in South Africa, strains of the coronavirus from India and the United Kingdom (UK) have been detected in the country – a development expected to deepen the local crisis.
To avert any further spread of the virus, leading medical experts have pinned their hopes on government speeding up its vaccine roll-out plan – set to start this month.
Currently ranking as the global pandemic epicentre with over 300,000 new Covid-19 cases reported daily, India has suffered several fatalities – largely driven by the deadly B.1.617.2 variant.
According to India Today, the country was also reeling from growing cases of mucormycosis – a serious but rare fungal infection causing blindness – among Covid-19 survivors.
Except for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson clinical trial study, which has seen 382,480 healthcare workers inoculated under the Sisonke Protocol, millions of citizens in SA are yet to be vaccinated against the virus, that has led to at least 1.5 million positive cases, claiming more than 50,000 deaths.
Reiterating his earlier call for people not to panic, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa has confirmed 11 cases of the B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, and four cases of the B.1.617.2 Indian strain.
“There is no need for panic, as the fundamentals of the public health response – testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantining – have not changed.”
However, Mkhize added: “B.1.1.7 has been detected in community samples, suggesting community transmission of it has already set in.”
Professor Shabir Madhi, executive director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics research unit at Wits University, said the only viable tool to get back to normalcy was to ensure expeditious vaccination of highrisk groups.
“Closing SA borders after our first wave did not assist in us preventing a resurgence, which ended up being due to the B1.351 that evolved in South Africa.
Wits University associate professor and healthcare management expert Alex van den Heever, said it was impossible to keep variants out of a country.
“They can enter South Africa through third countries and from community transmission at airports. Pre- and post-travel testing, and subsequent tracing is the most reasonable strategy. Waves arise from super-spreading and those can only be addressed through the kinds of restrictions we implemented last December and through vaccination.
“Government should be held to account for failure to procure and vaccinate timeously – a major blunder,” said Van den Heever.
Said SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) president Professor Glenda Gray: “There will be ongoing viral evolution, with the best way to control it being through the rolling out of vaccines.
“To prevent inward transmission, we need to ensure that people are tested before going into a plane.”