HARARE – There is a “pretty high likelihood” that the new coronavirus variant 501.V2 identified in South Africa could be circulating in Zimbabwe – but no investigation has been done to ascertain its presence, it has been revealed.
South Africa identified the new variant of the novel coronavirus, which authorities believe is driving a surge in Covid-19 infections that could overwhelm its healthcare system.
Several countries, including Britain which has found the mutant variant in cases linked to South Africa, have banned flights from South Africa, disrupting holiday travel and frustrating tour operators.
Starting Tuesday, Zimbabwe said it was banning general travel between its land borders but flights would be permitted, including to and from South Africa, a decision that has been criticised.
Zimbabwean health officials say the country’s hospitals are being overwhelmed as infections rise quicker than before. On Tuesday, the country recorded 1,365 Covid-19 cases and 34 deaths, its single biggest daily increase for both as it began a month-long lockdown to curb surging infections.
There is “a pretty high likelihood” that the new coronavirus variant is behind the surge, said Rashida Ferrand, a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine professor working at the Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in the capital Harare.
But no sequencing had been done to investigate if there were cases of that variant in Zimbabwe yet, she said.
Neighbouring South Africa is home to millions of Zimbabwean economic migrants and many locals frequently travel between the two countries on business and to visit family.
“We have a much larger number of admissions currently compared to the first wave,” Ferrand told Reuters.
Human rights doctors on Wednesday accused the government of being “mostly reactionary” since the pandemic began, with its response “devoid of proper planning processes that respond to the existing risk levels.”
They were particularly incensed by the decision to keep air travel open, while banning general travel through land borders except for cargo truck drivers, returning residents and permit holders.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said Zimbabwe “faces an existential threat of new strains of Covid-19 from South Africa and the United Kingdom.”
“ZADHR laments the continued influx of travellers through air… Due to the high number of travellers during the festive season from the United Kingdom and South Africa, stricter measures were supposed to have been put in place prior to the holidays,” the doctors said.
The new variant, referred to as 501.V2, was discovered by a network of scientists around South Africa who have been tracking the genetics of the SARS-COV-2 virus.
The variant appears to be focused in the south and southeast regions of the country and has been dominating findings from samples collected since October, they say.
First identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, along South Africa’s east coast, it spread rapidly to other districts in the Eastern Cape, and to the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal (KZN) provinces.
Scientists say the variant is different from others circulating in South Africa because it has multiple mutations in the important “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect human cells.
It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.
Between 80 percent and 90 percent of new cases in the country are carrying the mutant variant, according to health authorities.
All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, change over time, and there have been hundreds of variations of this virus identified worldwide.
South African scientists say there is no clear evidence at this stage that this variant is associated with more severe disease or worse outcomes. However, it does appear to spread faster than previous iterations. – Additional reporting Reuters