Don’t panic, Government urges amidst new Covid-19 sub-variant

The Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla says no restrictions will be imposed amidst new Covid-19 variant.

When a new Covid-19 variant was discovered that was tagged as transmissible and could take us back to the early days of the pandemic, social media went into a frenzy. However, Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, has stated that no restrictions will be imposed as a result of the emergence of this Covid-19 virus sub-variant.

On Tuesday, January 10, Minister Dr Phaahla and Deputy Minister Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo held a media briefing to provide an update on the Covid-19 situation in South Africa.

The XBB.1.5 sub-variant was discovered in South Africa in December and was reported earlier this month. According to Phaahla, XBB.1.5 is a sub-variant of the globally dominant Omicron variant that causes less severe illness.

According to Phaahla, they have consulted their Ministerial Advisory Committees as well as the World Health Organisation and have received advice that there is no need to impose travel restrictions on any country, including China. They were also advised that there was no need to reimpose any restrictions in the country.

“The XBB.1.5 has been detected more in the United States of America where its prevalence is rated at about 6.8% of the circulating sub-variants. While the various sub-variants have shown different levels of transmissibility, there has thus been no marked change in severity of illness,” said Phaahla.

The Minister went on to say that vaccinations have put South Africa in a strong position to combat Covid-19 infections, and that there have been no major effects on the healthcare system since the variant’s discovery.

“We believe that the fact that the Omicron is still the dominant variant of concern in China and around the world, and that South Africans’ immunity from vaccination and natural immunity is still very strong, puts us in a better position and puts us at less risk.

“As a result, we have not seen any significant changes in our epidemiology in terms of infection rates, hospital admissions, or even the rate of fatalities from the Covid-19 pandemic up to this point,” he said.

Although no major restrictions will be imposed, the Minister stated that the Health Ministry will take precautionary measures. The measures were approved by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), which is chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa. They are as follows:

  • Encouraging increased testing on people who experience the known Covid-19 symptoms.
  • Encouraging those experiencing symptoms to go to health facilities.
  • Advising healthcare practitioners to order antigen or PCR tests to be done on symptomatic persons.
  • Every positive Covid-19 test to be sent to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) for genomic sequencing.
  • Increasing surveillance and wastewater testing by the NICD, including that of aircrafts coming from countries with a high Covid-19 burden.
  • Reinvigorating the national Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

Phaahla emphasised that getting the vaccine is still the best way to develop immunity to Covid-19.

“Our vaccination ministerial advisory committee will soon make changes to the age requirements for booster vaccination as well as the intervals between boosters. The remake intends to include not only people over the age of 50, but also all adults over the age of 18,” he said.