SA scientists identify COVID-19 variant, Mkhize announces

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize is briefing the media on the latest developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. Picture: EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has announced that South African scientists have identified a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The variant is a version of the COVID-19 virus.

The Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform identified the virus variant after sequencing hundreds of samples of the virus and noticing that this particular variant had been dominating the findings from the samples collected in the past two months.

Clinicians also noted that younger patients with no co-morbidities have been presenting with critical illness.

The minister said that the evidence collated strongly suggested that the current second wave being experienced in South African is being driven by the variant.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the co-chair of the MAC, explained that South Africa had all the different strains of the virus that were routinely spreading through the first wave and subsequently. The new variant emerged a few weeks ago, Karim said, adding that there it was expected that new variants would appear. What was unexpected, he said, was how rapidly the variant had become dominant in South Africa.

Karim said that it was unusual for the variant to contain the three mutations that it has, allowing it to attach itself better to the human cell.

He said that the variant had been reported in the UK, Australia and other countries and accounted for about 2% of all the viruses that had been sequenced around the world. In South Africa, the variant was being found in 18% to 19% of the sequencing found.

The MAC co-chair said that there were signs that the virus variant was spreading faster than the first wave viruses and that it was widespread.

Karim added that it was not yet known where it came from and why it formed. He said that the variant was first found in Nelson Mandela Bay but it was not known if it originated there.

He stressed that it was too early to tell if the variant was more severe than the first wave viruses or if it was reinfecting those who were infected in the first wave.

Karim also said that it would take time to verify whether the current vaccines worked against the new variant.

He, though, stressed that while there was a cause for concern due to the rapid spread of the virus, the same diagnostic tests and prevention strategies worked against the virus variant.

"We do not need to change the strategies at this point in terms of the current diagnostics, which are still effective, our current strategies - the social distancing, the hand hygiene, symptom checking, mask-wearing - are the basic prevention strategies for this virus," Karim said.

WATCH: Mkhize briefs media on latest COVID-19 developments