By Fakir Hassen
Johannesburg, May 4 (PTI) South Africa has so far not detected the Indian variant of the COVID-19 virus that is wreaking havoc in India, the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said after a traveller from India tested positive.
A traveller from India has been placed in isolation at a hospital in Durban after he was tested positive for COVID-19, although it has not yet been confirmed what variant infected the person.
The variant, named B.1.617, has raised global concern after being reported in around 17 countries including Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the United States, Singapore and Fiji.
“Though COVID-19 screening is performed at South African border posts, this unfortunately cannot fully rule out new cases and potentially new variants entering our country, either directly from their country of origin or via connecting routes,” Dr Caroline Maslo, senior clinical adviser and head of infection control of Netcare’s hospital division told the news website TimesLive.
Maslo, however, said the national department of health’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) should be the ones to tell South Africans if any new variants had been detected in the country and how these may differ from the strains that have been in circulation here to date.”
NICD said in a statement that it continues to monitor COVID-19 trends both nationally and abroad.
India has recently made headlines, following a resurgence of COVID-19 cases attributed in part to circulation of different variants, including the B.1.617 coronavirus variant.
“The institution has tremendous empathy for the dire situation that is unfolding in India and would like to reassure the South African public that we are keeping a close eye on developments,” said Prof Adrian Puren, the NICD's Acting Executive Director.
“Testing of COVID-19 positive samples from travellers entering South Africa from India and their close contacts will be prioritised,” said Dr Michelle Groome, Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the NICD.
“This will enable us to detect the B.1.617 and any other variants in a timely manner,” Groome added.
NICD said that the mutation of viruses was a natural occurrence in the lifecycle of any virus, as had been evidenced by the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 501Y.V2 lineage in South Africa in October 2020.
Although viral mutations are unavoidable, adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions have proven to greatly lessen transmission of the disease, said Puren as he advised South Africans to wear their masks, wash their hands with soap and water or to use hand sanitiser, and to keep a physical distance of at least 1.5 m from others.
“Social activities and small gatherings should take place outdoors, if possible, or in well-ventilated areas with open windows and doors, as proper ventilation plays an important role in reducing the spread,” Puren concluded.
Speaking in Parliament last week, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize also allayed fears about people coming into the country from India.
Mkhize said there was no direct risk to South Africa from the exponential rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths in India.
“I want to assure you that we are aware of that situation but we must be aware that there is no direct flight from India that would suddenly offload so many people as such,” Mkhize said during a briefing to Parliament’s health portfolio committee.
"We have been monitoring that situation and we don’t yet have any indication that there is a direct risk to South Africa in this regard, but we will continue to monitor the situation,” Mkhize said.
“I have also asked my team to check if there is any way that they could track who has come from India just to check that everything is fine and if there is anything we need to worry about,” Mkhize added. PTI FH