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New coronavirus strain is driving resurgence of infections in South Africa

A masked man sits in a chair holding paperwork and waits to pay for a coronavirus test.
A man waits to pay for a coronavirus test at a private laboratory in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday.
(Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

South Africa has announced that a new variant of the coronavirus is driving the country’s current resurgence of COVID-19, with higher numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

The new strain, known as 501.V2, is dominant among new confirmed infections in South Africa, according to health officials and scientists leading the country’s virus strategy. The variant is different from one that has hit Britain and caused many European nations and Canada to ban travelers from the U.K.

“It is still very early but at this stage, the preliminary data suggests the virus that is now dominating in the second wave is spreading faster than the first wave,” professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairman of the government’s Ministerial Advisory Committee, said at a briefing.

South Africa may see “many more cases” in the new wave than it experienced in the first surge of the disease, Abdool Karim said.

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South Africa currently has more than 8,500 people hospitalized with COVID-19, surpassing the previous high of 8,300 recorded in August.

“We are seeing a much earlier and much sharper rise in the second wave or resurgence than we anticipated,” professor Ian Sanne, a member of the advisory committee, told South Africa’s News24.

British scientists have found a version of the coronavirus with a cluster of genetic changes that make it more transmissible and perhaps more dangerous.

The new strain appears to be more infectious than the original coronavirus. South African scientists are studying if the vaccines against COVID-19 will also offer protection against the new strain.

Some of the vaccines, including the one developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, are undergoing clinical tests in South Africa.

The scientists studying the new variant emphasized that preventive measures such as wearing masks and social distancing are vital.

In response to the resurgence of COVID-19, the South African government has introduced tougher lockdown restrictions that include limited days and hours for alcohol sales and the closure of beaches in areas identified as hotspots.

If the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech was good enough to get a nod from the FDA, the vaccine from Moderna and the NIH almost certainly is as well.

South Africa’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has more than doubled over the last two weeks, from 6.47 new cases per 100,000 people Dec. 6 to 14.68 new cases per 100,000 people Sunday. The number of deaths has also increased, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in South Africa rising from 0.18 death per 100,000 people Dec. 6 to 0.34 death per 100,000 people Sunday.

The country has recorded a total of 912, 477 cases, including 24,539 deaths.

Abdool Karim and other experts have expressed concerns that more people may be infected over the holiday season, as many people travel and visit family members.


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