The discovery of the new B.1.1.529 Covid variant is still 'very fresh news,' according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla, and has caught the government off guard, with health officials and scientists still monitoring the situation to see how it might affect South Africa.
The government was only fully briefed on the new variant on Thursday morning (November 25), according to Phaahla, who expects more data over the weekend.
He went on to say that in the coming days, he'll meet with government officials, President Cyril Ramaphosa's cabinet, and the National Coronavirus Command Council to discuss possible intervention measures and restrictions.
While it is too early to predict what the government's exact course of action will be, Phaahla noted that the government has learned a number of lessons over the last 21 months about what causes a Covid-19 wave to emerge and how to stop the spread of a new variant.
He singled out an increase in travel out of Gauteng during the December holiday season as a potential source of concern.
According to Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the variant surprised authorities and experts.
"This variant surprised us," he said, "and it has a lot more mutations than we expected." "It's spreading quickly, and we expect the healthcare system to be under strain in the coming days and weeks."
On Thursday (November 25), the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) issued an alert confirming the variant's presence in the country, with more cases to be confirmed as sequencing results become available.
The NICD warned that the number of people testing positive for the new variant is rapidly increasing, particularly in Gauteng, the North West, and Limpopo.
"It's not surprising that a new variant has been discovered in South Africa," said NICD acting executive director Professor Adrian Puren. "Despite the limited data, our experts are working around the clock with all existing surveillance systems to better understand the new variant and its potential consequences."
He promised that the situation would be closely monitored and that the public would be kept informed. According to him, provincial health authorities are still on high alert and prioritizing the sequencing of positive samples.
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