SA Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has slammed the comments made by the Secretary for Health in the United Kingdom, Matt Hancock, over the SA COVID-19 variant being “more transmissible”.
Both Britain and South Africa are currently facing a second wave in COVID-19 cases as new variants of the coronavirus have been discovered in both countries. Mkhize has lashed out at Hancock for his remarks during a media briefing in the UK.
“Thanks to the impressive genomic capability of the South Africans, we’ve detected two cases of another new variant of coronavirus here in the UK. Both are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks,” Hancock said.
Britain is already trying to curb the spread of a mutated strain of the virus which is up to 70% more transmissible, and further studies are being carried out on the new variant. “This new variant is highly concerning, because it is yet more transmissible, and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant has been discovered in the UK,” he said.
Mkhize issued a statement on Christmas Eve stating that Hancock’s comments about the SA variant being a major factor in the second wave in the UK are not correct. “There is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the South African variant. To give some historical context, on 14 December, the UK reported to the WHO that a variant had been identified and traced back to 20 September 2020 in Kent, South East England- approximately a month before the South African variant appears to have developed,” Mkhize said.
“This variant has a mutation occurring at a site common with the South African variant (the 501), although they are two completely independent lineages. The UK variant is thought to be driving the second wave that the UK is experiencing currently.”
Mkhize added that the UK variant has already been identified outside of the UK as reported by Prof Neil Ferguson, a top British scientist who told the UK’s science and technology committee on the 23 December 2020 that evidence from Denmark suggests that ‘almost certainly’ the new virus variant identified in the UK is already in the ‘great majority if not all’ European countries.
“We are also concerned that there is rhetoric developing that the 501.V2 variant is 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 South African 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 United Kingdom variant- as suggested by 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.
“This, as well as other factors that influence transmissibility, is the subject of a further investigation involving genomic investigators, epidemiologists, public health specialists, clinicians and other key stakeholders.
“There is no evidence that the SA variant is more pathogenic than the UK variant… Future research will also shed light on the question of whether the 501.V2 variant becomes resistant to vaccines that have been developed.”
Mkhize said that the South African government is focused on collaborating and cooperating with the WHO and all affected nations on containment measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 overall. “Genomics surveillance is greatly assisting us to refine and improve our strategies as we learn more about the virus and its behaviour.”