South Africa is suffering a powerful second wave of Covid-19 caused by a new strain of the disease similar to the British variant which is feared to be more contagious and driving a surge of infections among young people.
Cases in South Africa have risen from fewer than 3,000 a day at the start of December to more than 9,500 a day as of Tuesday, apparently driven by a variant called 501.V2 which has now been detected in Britain as well.
South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalised with Covid-19, surpassing the previous high of 8,300 recorded in August.
Five countries including Britain, Germany and Switzerland have banned flights from South Africa in an effort to stop the spread of the disease which is thought to be affecting young people more than other variants.
Britain and South Africa are both suffering resurgences of coronavirus which they are blaming on newly-identified mutations of the disease
Like the British mutant strain, the South African mutant strain ‘looks more transmissible,’ according to Public Health England.
South African Health minister Zweli Mkhize said the new strain had been identified by genomics scientists in South Africa.
‘The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,’ Mkhize added.
South African health authorities said the new variant seemed to spread faster than the previous iteration, but that it was too early to tell its severity and whether current vaccines would work against it.
The mutation means the country may see ‘many more cases’ in the new wave than it experienced in the first surge of the disease, said Abdool Karim.
Up to 80 to 90 per cent of cases being newly diagnosed in South Africa are of the new type, it is believed.
Doctors have remarked that more patients are younger, and do not always have other conditions that amplify the virus’ effect, but are nonetheless suffering from more severe forms of Covid-19.
But young people’s behaviour has also been blamed, with parents told to ‘take responsibility’ for their children’s adherence to the rules, South African media says.
‘In the UK they have also identified a new variant… there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages… there are also a similar number of mutations’ said Prof Tulio de Oliviera, a member of the government’s genomics consortium.
Matt Hancock said today that the new variant had been found in Britain in contacts of people who had recently travelled from South Africa.
‘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,’ he said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.
‘We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,’ said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, using the full name for the virus.
‘They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.’
A hospital nurse performs a coronavirus test in Richmond, Johannesburg, last Friday with cases and deaths rising in South Africa
Passengers wait in line at a Johannesburg airport on Monday as South Africa, like Britain, finds itself isolated by coronavirus-related travel bans
Like Britain, South Africa has found itself isolated by a series of travel bans following the discovery of the new strain.
Germany and Switzerland are among the countries to have imposed the same restrictions on South Africa as on the UK in recent days.
Aviation experts said they expected more airlines and countries to follow suit, at least until more was known.
South Africa has been affected more by the coronavirus than other countries on the continent, and as of Tuesday had seen 940,212 cases and 25,246 deaths.
After a July peak in which cases were regularly rising by more than 10,000 per day, the numbers had fallen as low as 1,500 per day by mid-November.
But they have since come surging back again, and deaths have also risen from a typical 93 per day a month ago to 226 per day now.
The 339 new deaths added to the tally on Tuesday marked the highest single-day jump since the end of the first wave.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said there will be no hard lockdown this time but there are early closures for pubs and bars and curtailed hours for alcohol sales.
Ramaphosa has also ordered the closing of popular beaches during the festive season, which falls in the Southern Hemisphere summer.