By Lehlohonolo Lehana.
Epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist Professor Salim Abdool Karim says scientists have new evidence that the new Covid variant, 501.V2 found in South Africa is stronger and spreads faster.
Karim was speaking during a scientific panel discussion, led by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on the new variant of the coronavirus.
"This new variant's ability to bind onto the human cells is more effective than the first and makes it more deadly. Mutations in the virus allow the virus to bind to cells more deeply and effectively, driving South Africa's second wave," explained Karim.
The new Covid variant is thought to be responsible for driving South Africa’s burgeoning second wave of infections. The variant, known as 501.V2, was first detected in samples from the Nelson Mandela Bay area around August 2020.
"We are now seeing more cases and deaths than we saw in the first wave. Earlier research shows that the new Covid-19 variant has 23 mutations and has since spread throughout our entire coastal region."
"In the Western Cape, the second wave took half as long to reach 100K cases. In KZN, the second wave took 33 days to reach 100K infections compared to 54 days in the first wave," he said.
On whether the current vaccines will be effective in dealing with the second variant, Karim said scientists don't yet have an answer but are working on this.
"There is no way to tell if the current vaccines are effective in dealing with the second variant scientists still waiting on the data regarding this."
While scientists don’t have answers on whether these vaccines are free of long-term side effects, whether they prevent asymptomatic infection or viral spread, Karim advised that it should not be a reason to hesitate when it comes to using vaccines as they have the potential to save lives.
Meanwhile South Africa, which has yet to receive its first coronavirus vaccine doses, will be getting 9 million from Johnson & Johnson, the health ministry said on Monday.
The government is trying to secure enough Covid-19 vaccines after health workers and scientists criticised it for not moving fast enough to inoculate citizens.
The country has recorded more than 1.3 million infections and more than 37 000 deaths related to the virus, the most in Africa.
Health ministry spokeswoman Lwazi Manzi did not specify when the J&J doses might be available. She was confirming a report in the Business Day newspaper.
The J&J doses take the total number of doses that South Africa stands to receive to more than 30 million.
J&J did not respond to an email seeking comment. The U.S. healthcare company's chief scientific officer said last week it was on track to roll out its single-shot coronavirus vaccine in March, and expects to have clear data on how effective it is by the end of this month or early February.
South Africa should also receive about 12 million doses from the Covax global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization, about 12 million from an African Union (AU) arrangement, and 1.5 million from the Serum Institute of India which is making AstraZeneca shots.