The department of health has taken precautionary measures as it monitors the Covid-19 infection rate amid growing concern that the country’s lockdown restrictions might be imposed again.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has called on all private and public laboratories to send positive Sars-CoV-2 specimens for genomic sequencing. 

City Press’ sources within the department said some officials – in their weekly meetings that are held to discuss any developments – suggested a swift response before winter started. The source said stakeholders, including top government officials, had been briefed.

A week ago, newly elected ANC first deputy secretary-general Nomvula Mokonyane encouraged people to wear masks at the party’s 111th birthday celebrations, which were held in Mangaung in the Free State. However, in its statement released during the week, the NICD allayed fears of a return to lockdown restrictions.

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The department said there was no need for citizens to panic, as the outbreak of the Omicron variant – currently known as XBB.1.5 – continues to spread. According to the source, the department is monitoring the situation closely to determine whether there will be a need for some restrictions.

“The meeting was part of the weekly plenary update, but what was worrying about XBB.1.5 was the increase in immune evasion,” said an insider. The NICD said the variant is now being monitored as a “subvariant of concern”. The source said one of the first steps the country might take, should the institute discover that the variant spreads fast and is dangerous, would be encouraging the wearing of masks and keeping a reasonable distance in social settings.

The source said: 

At the moment, we know that the variant isn’t as deadly as the first one, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take precautions and continue washing hands and using alcohol sanitisers

South Africa was one of the countries that spent more than two years under lockdown following the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020.

Concern has also been triggered by government’s silence on requiring the quarantine of people travelling from China after that country eased its lockdown restrictions. The US and some European countries have imposed strict travel restrictions on people coming from China. Sources within the department say that, although government has kept a close eye on rising infections, this may not necessarily result in a large wave of them.

READ:Covid risk still high in SA with resurgent waves and new variants - NICD

The NICD said no changes to the public health response were required, and citizens were encouraged to be vaccinated and get booster shots, because vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death.

Health experts have warned that the appearance of the XBB.1.5 variant is a timely warning that the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over and caution is needed, particularly for those who have chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and immune system disorders.

Dr Jo Barnes, a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s department of global health and public health, said other vulnerable groups were the elderly, the very young and people who smoked. On December 27, a genomic surveillance unit at Stellenbosch University, a member of the Network for Genomics Surveillance in SA (NGS-SA), reported that it had detected the XBB.1.5 subvariant from a specimen that had been obtained from a patient. The NGS-SA was established in 2020 to control and prevent localised outbreaks of Covid-19 and assess the evolution of Sars-CoV-2.

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Barnes said that symptoms of the XBB.1.5 variant were the same as those of the other Omicron variant, which included a sore throat, a hoarse voice, a cough, fatigue, nasal congestion, a runny nose, headaches and muscle aches.

“The variant circulating in South Africa is called Omicron and this new ‘grandchild’ is still an Omicron variant, only in its own right and slightly changed,” she said, adding that the most important pathway of infection was breathing in small droplets containing the virus.

She explained: 

These droplets are coughed or breathed out by other people who have the infection. That’s why wearing a mask helps when you’re a member of any of the vulnerable groups

Barnes said that XBB.1.5 was much more infectious than the previous versions of Omicron, which meant that it was spreading more efficiently.

“Having said that, it does seem as if it isn’t more severe, meaning that it doesn’t give rise to more serious illness. In the more than 40 countries that have reported the presence of XBB.1.5 so far, there haven’t been unusual increases in admissions to intensive care units and no significant increases of persons who’ve died of the disease,” she said.

The NICD said that, with the growing distribution of XBB.1.5, it was not unexpected that it would be detected in South Africa. According to a statement from the institute, XBB.1.5 has been shown to have a growth advantage in the US compared with previous variants, which means that it may outcompete other variants to become the dominant circulating variant in some settings.

“The growth advantage is thought to be due to a substitution (F486P) in the spike protein that increases the binding of the virus to the human ACE2 receptor and therefore increases the transmissibility of the virus,” read the statement. The NICD said that, thus far, it was not known whether the severity of infection would be different from other Omicron sublineages.

“The World Health Organisation Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution is currently conducting an ongoing risk assessment of XBB.1.5. Due to the widespread circulation of other Omicron sublineages and the overall high population immunity in South Africa, the introduction of XBB.1.5 in our country may not necessarily result in a large wave of infections,” said the institute.

Early this week, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the department and its entities had been monitoring developments: “Genomic surveillance has also been continuing. In December, there was an increase globally of 14.5 million new cases and 46 600 deaths reported, compared with November.”

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Phaahla added that Japan, South Korea, the US, China and Brazil represented 70% of the new cases. However, in the last week of last month, new cases had declined in all the above-mentioned countries, except China.

“There have been several media reports of overburdened hospitals and crematoriums in China during December and the early days of January, and this situation has caused a lot of panic in various parts of the world, including among some South Africans,” he said.

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