The Minister of Health held a COVID-19 media briefing on Tuesday, 10 December, to provide an update on the pandemic situation in South Africa. Dr Joe Phaahla sought to address the public panic that followed the detection of the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 last week.
XBB.1.5 SUBVARIANT DETECTED IN RANDOM SAMPLE
As previously reported, a COVID-19 infection caused by the XBB.1.5 subvariant was detected by Stellenbosch University’s Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA).
READ: XBB.1.5: The ‘most transmissible’ COVID-19 subvariant detected in SA
The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to XBB.1.5 as the most transmissible subvariant yet since the pandemic’s start. The subvariant was found in a sample taken on 27 December 2022 and publicly announced on 6 January.
Phaahla said there are no patient details as the sample was anonymous and the individual may or may not be from the Western Cape. Contact tracing is not possible.
The Minister of Health added that the subvariant had not been detected in other samples thus far. However, that does not mean there aren’t more cases circulating in the country. That being said, hospitalisation rates remain low along with new infections.
He said the Department is pushing for more samples to be sent for genomic sequencing so that the country’s health authorities have a broader pool to consider.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ (NICD) Dr Michelle Groome said the data that suggests XBB.1.5 is more transmissible is very weak and it’s not been shown to cause more severe disease or deaths.
Groome said XBB.1.5 might become the dominant variant in the United States, where it currently accounts for 40 per cent of COVID-19 infections, but that does not necessarily mean it will become dominant in South Africa.
NO TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
“The advice we received is that there is no need to impose travel restrictions or restrictions within our borders,” said Phaahla.
The Minister of Health listed a dozen countries that have imposed travel restrictions of varying degrees on people from China. However, he said South Africa would not follow suit.
Phaahla said Omicron is the dominant variant in China and added that the reason for the case surge is the easing of restrictions. “The major reason for the overwhelming of facilities in China is the relaxing of restrictions. There is very limited natural immunity. In certain areas, vaccination was limited.”
Omicron continues to be the dominant variant in South Africa and across most of the world and the Department of Health is confident that the local population’s immunity is strong.
According to Groome, many people in South Africa have been exposed to the different COVID-19 variants hence the high levels of population immunity.