While the imported Covid-19 variants recently detected in the country were of great concern, behaviour remained the biggest driver of the third wave, experts have said.
This comes as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) sequenced Covid-19 specimens from people with a recent travel history to India, Europe and North America.
The institute confirmed this weekend that four of the specimens tested positive for B.1.617.2 (two cases from Gauteng and two from KwaZulu-Natal).
The B.1.617.2 variant is of interest by the World Health Organization and is one of multiple variants circulating in India.
The NICD said all cases have been isolated and managed, and contact tracing had been performed.
A further 11 people have tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant dominating infections in Europe and North America, with eight cases in the Western Cape, two in Gauteng and one in KwaZulu-Natal.
The South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) researcher Peter van Heusden said pandemic fatigue was the biggest concern.
“Right now there are way more cases being spread within the country than being imported, the variants around here are concerning enough. We do not know enough about the B.1.617.2 variant yet. While these variants in the country are concerning, people are gathering in quite significant numbers which is far concerning as it drives cases far more than any new variant.
“Pandemic fatigue is the biggest concern and people are still minimising the disease a year later. Testing is only done as people come to health-care facilities, we are not going out looking for it, so there is a significant undercount of what’s happening in our communities.”
He said while everyone missed socialising, we were not there yet.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said in a statement the variant found in the UK has also been detected in community tracing which suggests that community transmission has already set in.
“There are a number of other samples from cases with a history of recent travel into South Africa that are currently being sequenced and results are expected over the next few days,” he said.
Mkhize called for calm, saying: “We reiterate that there is no need to panic, as the fundamentals of the public health response (testing, contact tracing and quarantine) have not changed. We all have a responsibility to adhere to prevention measures in order to limit the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa,” he said.
Some districts in eight of the country’s nine provinces have reported spikes in infections.
Despite having not recorded any cases of the variant detected in India Premier Alan Winde said the Western Cape remained vigilant.
“The Western Cape Government is guided by scientific expertise. We are fortunate to have many bright minds in the province, and South Africa more generally. They inform me that the dominant variant in the province continues to be B.1.351, which was first detected in South Africa, and announced last year ahead of the second wave. Our surveillance teams, as they have done throughout this period, continue to monitor for clusters and to intervene to ensure we break the chain of transmission,” he said.
NICD Acting executive director Professor Adrian Puren said they were focusing their resources and research efforts “towards understanding the variants and what the potential implications are for South Africa.”
Minimising the spread of the disease and possibly curtailing a resurgence through compliance with non-pharmaceutical interventions cannot be emphasised enough, he said.
“We understand that many are suffering from Covid-19 fatigue, and becoming lax in exercising preventative measures. But for the sake of yourselves and your loved ones, wash or sanitise your hands, wear your masks and maintain a physical distance of 1.5m from others. Remember to hold gatherings outdoors, or in well-ventilated areas and roll up your sleeve once the Covid-19 vaccine becomes available to you,” Puren said.