Testing of wastewater to detect Covid subvariant but no further restrictions planned for country

The scientists identified the subvariant last month in one of 97 collected random samples.

The scientists identified the subvariant last month in one of 97 collected random samples.

Published Jan 11, 2023


Cape Town - While South Africa will not reimpose Covid-19 restrictions, testing and surveillance of wastewater to detect Sars-CoV-2 RNA amid new Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5 will be heightened.

There will also be renewed focus on the vaccination programme after the Department of Health was advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and scientific advisers, said Health Minister Joe Phaahla.

He held a virtual media briefing on Tuesday, together with his deputy Sibongiseni Dhlomo, to give an update about Covid-19.

This follows the discovery of the first XBB.1.5 subvariant case in the country, which was detected by the Centre for Genomic Surveillance at Stellenbosch University.

The scientists identified the subvariant last month in one of 97 collected random samples.

Omicron is dominant in China, with some countries across the globe having imposed requirements for travellers from the country due to the rate of infections and deaths reported last month.

“We have consulted our ministerial advisory committees and also the World Health Organisation.

“In both cases, the advice that we have received is that there is no need to impose any travel restrictions on any country, including China and that we also do not need to re-impose any restrictions internally in our country,” said Phaahla.

He said the XBB.1.5 has been detected more in the US, where its prevalence was rated at about 6.8% of the circulating subvariants.

“While the various subvariants have shown different levels of transmissibility, there has thus been no marked change in severity of illness.”

Precautionary measures that will however be taken include the rollout of vaccine booster shots, not only to people over 50 years, but also all adults over 18 years of age.

Acting chief director and child health specialist Dr Lesley Bamford said at this stage there were no plans to further vaccinate children.

Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Dr Michelle Groome, said while the variant was dominant elsewhere, it did not mean that it would become dominant in the country.

“It has been in the US since October and while there is some evidence that it is slightly more transmissible, this evidence is weak. There is nothing proving that the variant will increase severity in illness,” said Groome.

Meanwhile, Health MEC Dr Nomafrench Mbombo has encouraged people to remain calm and careful in the light of the XBB.1.5.

“Our department continues to monitor the Covid-19 situation in our province, and we will alert the public if we see a rise in hospitalisations or deaths,” she said.

The daily Covid-19 numbers in the Western Cape show a total number of 349 active cases reported.

About 21 patients are currently admitted to hospital, of these three are in ICU and a total of one death has been reported in the last 7 days.

Mbombo said Phaahla’s briefing confirmed that currently there was no confirmed evidence that XBB.1.5 was more severe or causes more severe disease than other variants.

“While it was detected locally, samples are randomised and there is no clear confirmation that the sample was from the Western Cape. For now, it is important that people take up their vaccinations and boosters, when eligible.

“We still have weekly sites in the province. Vaccination still is the best defence against the Covid-19 virus. It is also crucial to take it up to ensure we can carry on with our lives safely,” said Mbombo.

Cape Times