Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla on Thursday confirmed the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant, which has been detected in three countries, including South Africa.
Twenty-two cases of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus variant have been identified in South Africa, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
During a media briefing on Thursday, Phaahla said the new variant, known as the B.1.1.529, has been driving the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country, especially in Gauteng.
“Members of the public may have noticed Covid-19 cases have been rising [in the past week or so]. The cases started gradually, but over the last four or five days there has been more of an exponential rise, particularly in Gauteng,” he said.
On Wednesday, the NICD reported 1,275 new Covid-19 infections in the country.
This is the highest number of Covid-19 infections that has been recorded since 6 October, just after the country exited the third wave.
Elaborating further on the new variant, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), Professor Tulio de Oliveira, said the variant had 10 mutations.
De Oliveira said the variant is of great concern as it had also been detected in Botswana and in Hong Kong.
However, the full significance of the variant is still unknown.
The professor continued to say that a Greek name will be assigned to it by the World Health Organization (WHO).
This week, WHO classified the B.1.1.529 variant as a variant under monitoring (VUM).
De Oliveira added that super-spreader events could lead to cluster outbreaks, and should be avoided at all costs.
The country is currently on adjusted level 1 lockdown, which has eased restrictions on gatherings and people’s movements.
He further stressed that Covid-19 vaccines offered strong protection. As of Wednesday, just over 25 million vaccines have been administered across the country.
Jacaranda FM reported that the South African Medical Association (SAMA) chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee had indicated that the variant allegedly originated from an HIV positive patient.
However, the number of cases in South Africa is not yet a major concern as the fourth wave of infections looms.
Coetzee said while there had been a general spike in Covid-19 cases in the country, there was no spike in hospital admissions.
“What we do know is that, since last week, we have seen an increase in patients with Covid-19. The symptoms are mostly mild symptoms, and we haven’t seen a spike in hospital admissions.
“We don’t know whether this [spike in cases] is the new variant or not, they’re still busy with sequencing and will know most probably by the end of next week. For now we don’t want the public to panic as it is only six cases,” she said.
It was previously predicted that the Covid-19 fourth wave was likely to peak lower than the previous waves, but only because there was no new variant.
The new variant is currently becoming dominant in South Africa.