Covid-19 experts says they expect pressure on the country’s healthcare system to escalate in the coming days and weeks due to the new B.1.1.529 variant detected in the country. First identified in Botswana, the variant has already been confirmed in 21 people in South Africa of whom 20 were unvaccinated. Hundreds more samples are currently being analysed and the figure is expected to rise.

According to the Acting Executive Director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, Prof Adrian Puren, data are still limited but experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be.

“Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date” Prof Puren said.

Speaking at a hastily convened media briefing, the director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp), Prof Tulio de Oliviera said the variant came as a complete surprise, particularly because of its big evolutionary jump.

He says the variant has many more mutations than expected and was spreading very fast.

University of KwaZulu-Natal infectious disease specialist, Prof Richard Lessells explained that the new variant has a unique constellation of 32 mutations on the spike protein, which the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to enter human cells. But it is not yet clear how transmissible it is, whether it is more virulent than older lineages, and the extent to which it is able to evade the immune response triggered by prior infection or vaccination, Lessels added.

The South African research chair of Virus-Host Dynamics at Wits University and the NICD, Prof Penny Moore said her team are currently assessing the variant’s impact on neutralising antibodies, but that testing was complicated by the number of mutations the variant has. She said getting the actual data from the laboratory experiments would likely take a number of weeks.

New Covid-19 cases have been increasing at a rapid pace in the past week with the number jumping to more than 2400 in the latest reporting period with the death toll also rising to 114.  Most of the news cases were detected in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo.

Dr Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD says that provincial health authorities remain on high alert and are prioritising the sequencing of COVID-19 positive samples. She stressed that regardless of the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, the importance of non-pharmaceutical interventions remains unchanged, and the public are urged to be responsible.

“This means that individuals should get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and gather in well ventilated spaces.” She concludes with, “Individual compliance to preventative,” Dr Groome said.

Government is expected to meet with the National Coronavirus Command Council this weekend to discuss possible intervention measures and restrictions.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said while it was too early to decide on possible restrictions in the coming week, 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.