/ 11 May 2021

New Covid-19 variant in South Africa ‘of concern at a global level’ — WHO

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Pharmacy cashier Silvia Carballo wearing a face mask and gloves counts bills. (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the Covid-19 B.1.617 variant as one of concern, but the agency maintains that available vaccines remain effective “at preventing disease and death in people infected with this variant”.

The B.1.617 variant, first detected in India, was previously viewed as one of interest. New data of the variant’s particular lineage — B.1.617.2 — have shown a rapid spread to countries across the world, including in South Africa.  

Maria van Kerkove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the WHO’s lead on Covid-19, told media on Monday, 10 May that “there is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B.1.617. As such we are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level.” 

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The WHO’s list of concerning variants includes B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, P.1 originally from Brazil, and the B.1.351 variant, first detected in South Africa. 

Barring the P.1 variant, South Africa has detected all other variants in the country. 

Referring specifically to the B.1.617 variant, Van Kerkove said “we don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work” against this lineage. 

Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, told the Mail & Guardian that South Africans should not be “overly concerned” about the new variants, but rather about the number of Covid cases again increasing in several provinces. 

“It’s those two things together that should worry us rather than just the fact that these variants are coming into the country, because that’s not surprising. We see rising infections and new variants in many parts of the world. It’s inevitable as we’re travelling much more than a year ago,” argues Lessells. 

On Monday, WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus said a global “plateauing in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths” had been recorded in most regions. However, it remained a high plateau, he said “with more than 5.4-million reported cases and almost 90 000 deaths last week”.

In South Africa, the number of daily Covid infections fell to fewer than 2 000 on Sunday after a four-day high with reported daily cases of slightly more than 2 000. Since the last report on Monday, 10 May, 1 129 new infections were recorded, bringing the number of cases since the outbreak of the pandemic in March last year to 1 597 724.