South Africa is doing everything it can to keep up with the required level of testing for Covid-19, but there are “constraints beyond our control”, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.
Mkhize was answering questions in the first hybrid, virtual sitting of the National Assembly on Wednesday.
The day before, he briefed the National Council of Provinces, where he expressed his concern about the global shortage of test kits, which could create a backlog.
Mkhize also noted this in his daily Covid-19 press release on Tuesday: “As a country, we are now facing a challenge with the global shortage of testing reagents. We understand it’s becoming a challenge to many other countries.”
News24 reported on Wednesday that both public and private sectors were showing a sharp decline in the number of tests conducted.
Mkhize told the National Assembly on Wednesday that testing is a “major weapon in our arsenal”.
He said that in the first week after the virus had reached South Africa, 35 tests were done per day; now the average was 15,000 per day. The country is, however, “confronted by the global demand for test kits”, he added.
He said, to date, more than 596,000 tests had been done.
“The thing that is hitting us is the global shortages in supply,” he said.
“We are doing everything we can to keep at the level of testing that we need.”
He said the testing constraints were caused by “factors beyond our control”.
“Every country is looking for what we are looking for.”
He said South Africa’s “internal capacity” to manufacture test kits was a problem.
As the Southern African Pharmaceutical Regulatory Affairs Association (SAPRAA) approves more test kits, more tests can be done, said Mkhize.
SAPRAA had licenced an additional 20 kits faster than they had ever done before, he told the National Assembly.
DA MP Siviwe Gwarube told Mkhize she was glad he was “exploring alternative means to ramp up our tests” and spoke of its importance in identifying cluster outbreaks.
She then asked him on what basis the religious gatherings were approved, “given what we know about cluster outbreaks”.
He said when Covid-19 was first diagnosed in the country, the government “asked for reductions in gatherings”.
“We will be having this Covid for a year or two. It will be impossible to stop religious activities for this period,” he said.
The key issue is fostering a culture of containment and social distancing, Mkhize added.
Earlier, ACDP Wayne Thring said his party welcomed the lifting of restrictions on churches, “hopefully based on modelling”, and asked which restrictions would now apply.
Mkhize confirmed there would be restrictions, without going into the specifics, and thanked religious leaders for their role in the compliance with the lockdown regulations.
“We hope the churches and faith-based organisations will be at the forefront,” he said.
Thring’s question was a follow-up to a question from Gwarube about the modelling and data, as to when it envisaged the peak of Covid-19 infections would be reached and what the death rate would be.
“According to the South African Modelling Consortium, the peak of the infection is expected in mid-July in the pessimistic scenario, and mid-August in the optimistic scenario. These models should be considered dynamic and are dependent on new data that comes in. It should only be used as a guide for what may be possible,” Mkhize said.
The South African Modelling Consortium consists of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases as well as units from the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand.
He said it was estimated the number of deaths could range between 34,000 and 50,000. However, he pointed out that all these figures had been challenged by other academics, and that it was a field of rich debate.
“We do believe that the models will improve as time goes on and more raw data is fed into their assumptions.”
Mkhize said there were constraints in the health system, but President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced additional resources and every province was increasing the number of beds and putting up field hospitals.
“We want to guarantee that everyone will receive care on the basis of need, not on the basis of means,” Mkhize said.