South Africa on the brink of Covid-19 fifth wave

Speaking during a virtual media briefing on Friday morning, Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla said the Department of Health have noticed a rise in Covid-19 infections over the last two weeks, especially in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“As of yesterday, Gauteng alone accounted for 53% of positive cases, KZN 23% and Western Cape 11%,” Phaahla said.

He said the country reached 6 000 Covid infections on Wednesday, and while there was a slight decline to just over 4 000 Covid-19 infections on Thursday, this could be due to the public holiday on Wednesday that saw fewer people testing.

Phaahla said the country’s positivity rate remains quite high at 17%, adding this is the first time South Africa is seeing a resurgence in infections since ending the National State of Disaster.

The positivity rate in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, however, are at a slightly higher rate of 20%.

Public Health Specialist at National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Dr Waasila Jassat said increased cases have been recorded among all age groups, but the highest number of cases are currently in the 10 to 14 age group.

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However, she added that hospital admissions and death rates have not shown large increases.

Are we in a fifth Covid-19 wave?

Phaahla said while it is not yet clear if South Africa has entered the fifth wave, the numbers suggest that we are on the brink of one.

Clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist Prof Salim Abdool Karim said the next seven days will determine whether South Africa, is in fact, entering a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections.  

“We can only say we are in the fifth wave when there is a sustained 7-day period of more than 6 237 cases per day,” Phaala said.   

He added that Easter and other religious holidays could have resulted in a spike in infections, and the health department will need to monitor infection numbers over the next two weeks.

Phaahla urged South Africans not to let their guard down and to vaccinate ahead of winter as people will be spending more time indoors which increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Is there a new variant?

Phaahla said scientists have only confirmed the sub-variants of Omicron being the BA.4 and the BA.5, but not enough to be defined as variants of concern because the changes are not that significant.

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Dr Richard Lessells of the Genomic Sequencing Network explained that the BA.4 and the BA.5 are not new variants, but rather diversification of the Omicron variant.

“There is some evidence that these new lineages are replacing the previous dominant lineage, BA.2. The new lineages account for half of the cases since early April,” he said.

Dr Lessells said the waning immunity against Covid-19 infection may also be contributing to the resurgence of new infections.

He emphasized that key public health measures against all variants is and will always be vaccination to prevent severe disease.