The Health Department has all but confirmed the latest COVID-19 threat. The B.1.1.529 variant is spreading in South Africa and it seems, more than likely, that harsh lockdown restrictions are not far off into the future.
Is lockdown on the cards with new COVID-19 super variant confirmed?
Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla addressed an urgent media briefing on Thursday, accompanied by a team of epidemiologists who offered insight into what is scientifically known about the new variant spreading in South Africa.
Already, we know there is a high likelihood that B.1.1.529 is as — if not more — transmissibe as the Delta variant. According to Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists who is one of the earliest to raise alerts about B.1.1.529, the super variant has at least 32 mutations on its spike protein (the part of the strain that latches itself onto the human cell).
More concerning, however, is the fact that a cluster of these mutations contain what is known as a furin cleavage site in an area of the variant referred to as the 681 amino acid spot, or P681H.
In a recent study on SARS-CoV-2 led by Professor Thomas Peacock from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the furin cleavage site is described as a crucial entry point the virus uses to sequence and spread throughout the immune system. Peacock and others state that after analysing 100 000 sequences from patients, as well as 24 human post mortem tissues, it was determined that “the furin cleavage site is an important determinant of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
Therefore, with the likelihood of this variant being highly transmissive, questions were put to Minister Phaahla on whether these latest developments mean there is a harsh lockdown on the cards for South Africa.
In response, Phaahla, assisted by input from scientists, indicated that an accurate answer may surface next week. The minister, however, did confirm that high-level meetings are taking place this weekend where President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and other stakeholders, will discuss the necessity of introducing restrictions.
[Thread] Will we see #lockdown restrictions because of B.1.1.529?#Phaahla:— Mia Malan (@miamalan) November 25, 2021
1. No time to decide yet, B.1.1.529 = only discovered on 23 Nov
2. The coronavirus council will meet this w/end 2 decide
3. Implications 4 international travel = possible
(countries might not let us in).
Information we have on the B.1.1.529 spread in South Africa
The key take-out from Thursday’s media briefing was that South Africa’s scientist community was still playing catch-up with a variant that’s believed to have infiltrated our borders as early as Thursday 11 November 2021, according to Dr Feigl-Ding.
First discovered in Botswana, the B.1.1.529, as reported by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has already infected 22 South Africans, according to data collected from Tuesday 23 November 2021.
“Detected cases and percent testing positive are both increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo.,” the NICD said in a statement.
At this time, with little-to-no concrete information on the super variant, apart from the fact that it exhibits the worst traits of its closest cousins and could pose a greater threat to immunity, the best course of action to take, says Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD, is to “get vaccinated, wear masks, practice healthy hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and gather in well ventilated spaces.”
“Individual compliance to preventative measures can have a great collective impact in limiting the spread of the new variant,” Groome said.