January 08, 2021
People wait to be tested by medical staff at a South Africa Health Department mobile coronavirus testing unit in Johannesburg. Photographer: Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg
The new coronavirus strain identified in South Africa appears to be more transmissible than earlier variants and has accelerated the onset of a second wave of infections, according to a member of a panel of scientists advising the country’s health minister.
Yet there’s no evidence that it causes a more severe or different form of the disease, and hospitalization and mortality rates as a proportion of the number of infections are lower than during the first wave in July and August, said Ian Sanne, an infectious diseases doctor and head of Right to Care, a non-profit that provides treatment to people with HIV and associated diseases.
“We have seen data on viral loads being higher in patients that present with the variant,” he said in an interview Thursday. “The variant is more transmissible, the second wave has been substantially impacted.”
The emergence of the 501.V2 variant, which Sanne says could have originated elsewhere before being identified in South Africa last month, has caused a political spat between South Africa and the U.K., where a similar mutation is driving up infection rates.
U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock has said that the South African variant is more dangerous, prompting the U.K. to halt flights between the two countries. South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has labeled Hancock’s comments as “unfortunate” and unsupported by evidence.
The variant is dominating infections in the coastal South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape and to a lesser extent the Western Cape, Sanne said.
“Nobody was expecting this second wave so early, and because of the variant this is what happened. The staff, nurses, doctors and otherwise are under huge pressure,” said Marc Mendelson, head of the division of infectious diseases & HIV medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.
While more young people appear to be developing severe forms of the disease, it’s as yet unclear whether that’s due to the variant or more comprehensive testing and the holiday season, he said.
There’s no evidence that Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved won’t work against the new strain. As of Dec. 30, the South African variant had been reported in four other countries. The U.K. variant has been found more widely, with reports spanning 31 other countries, territories and areas across the world.