Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Thursday moved to allay fears that the fast-spreading newly-identified Covid-19 variant circulating in SA was more dangerous than variants in other countries.
In a statement on Christmas Eve, Mkhize said that there was “no evidence” of this.
And, said Mkhize, the decision to ban international travel from SA was not in line with current scientific evidence.
He was speaking after the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, on Wednesday spoke out about a “highly concerning” new strain of the virus coming out of SA.
The Express quoted him as saying: “This new variant is highly concerning, because it is yet more transmissible and it appeared to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered here.”
He thanked the SA government “for the rigour of their science”.
But Mkhize was critical of Hancock, saying that his comments “have created a perception that the variant in SA has been a major factor in the second wave in the UK”.
“This is not correct. There is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the SA variant,” he said.
Mkhize said there was evidence of a Covid-19 variant in the UK that had been circulating since around September 20 in Kent, south east England. This, the minister said, was “approximately a month before the SA variant appears to have developed”.
“This variant has a mutation occurring at a site common with the SA variant (the 501), although they are two completely independent lineages. The UK variant is thought to be driving the second wave that the UK are experiencing currently. In addition, the UK variant has already been identified outside the UK, as reported by Prof Neil Ferguson, a top British scientist who told the UK’s science and technology committee two days ago that evidence from Denmark, a country with a relatively low infection rate, suggests that ‘almost certainly’ the new virus variant identified in the UK is already in the ‘great majority if not all’ European countries,” Mkhize said.
He added that he was also concerned about “rhetoric” that was developing that the 501. V2 variant — identified in SA — was more transmissible than the UK variant or may potentially cause more serious morbidity and mortality.
“This has come in the wake of two samples collected from contacts of SA travellers testing positive for a SARS-COV-2 variant genetically identical to 501.V2. We have consulted with our genomics team who have assured us that, at present, there is no evidence that the 501. V2 is more transmissible than the UK variant, as suggested by the British health secretary.
“There is also no evidence that the 501. V2 causes more severe disease or increased mortality than the UK variant or any variant that has been sequenced around the world,” Mkhize said.
He added that, in line with this, it was the “widely shared view of the scientific community” that the current available evidence means the risks of risks of travel bans “may outweigh the benefits”. It was also possible to contain the variants while sustaining international travel.
“We, therefore, maintain that non-pharmaceutical interventions and strict containment measures remain most important to reduce the risk of transmission. Banning travel between UK and SA is an unfortunate decision. Such a decision would require more scientific evidence than is currently available. There is no evidence that the SA variant is more pathogenic than the UK variant to necessitate this step,” he said.