‘SA Covid-19 variant likely now in Zim’

There is a huge chance that the new Covid-19 variant strain has entered Zimbabwe due to high numbers of infections recorded since the start of 2021, compounded by the free flow of people to and from South Africa, health experts have said.

On December 18, 2020, South Africa announced the detection of a new variant of Covid-19 known as 501Y.V2 that was rapidly spreading in three provinces and fuelling a rise in cases.

On  January 7, 2021, the neighbouring country recorded more than 20 000 new Covid-19 cases in a 24-hour period.

Zimbabwe, as of January 7, 2021,  has recorded 18 675 confirmed Covid-19 cases with 446 deaths causing speculation the new Covid-19 variant strain is in the country due to movement from and to South Africa.

The country recorded its highest single number on January 5, 2021 where 1 365 cases and 34 deaths were recorded in 24 hours.

In an interview with CITE, Acting Bulawayo Provincial Medical Director (PMD), Dr Welcome Mlilo, said trends of increases in Covid-19 cases showed the country was now in the second wave.

“Bulawayo entered the second wave last year but I can’t remember the exact date. The second wave began when we saw an increase in Covid-19 cases. Now the rest of the country shows it has also entered the second wave and the record breaking figure of 1 365 cases on January 5, which was eight percent of our total Covid-19 cases shows no doubt of that,” he said.

Zimbabwe had the first Covid-19 wave from March 2020, with cases dying down in November 2020 only to go up in December while experts have noted that viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time.

As to whether Zimbabwe is experiencing the new Covid-19 variant strain, Dr Mlilo said there was that possibility but it was something to be proven scientifically.

“The National Reference Laboratory is testing Covid-19 samples to determine the strain but from our clinical picture we are seeing its trends, which is that it is more infectious and is killing more people,” he said.

“The strain could have entered the country when borders were open and there was lots of movement to and from South Africa. But this is something we have to prove scientifically and the national reference laboratory is doing those tests and investigating,” he said.

Dr Mlilo referred CITE to the Chief Laboratory Scientist, Barbara Manyame–Murwira at the National TB Reference Laboratory at Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo, where Covid-19 tests are done.

Manyame–Murwira said the laboratory in Bulawayo was not testing for the Covid-19 strain, as that was done in Harare but would provide information after communicating with colleagues in the capital.

Zimbabwe’s Health and Child Care Deputy Minister, Dr John Mangwiro, already has declared the entire country a coronavirus hotspot due to a caseload that continued increasing rapidly in all regions.

“There’s no area that’s called the hotspot, it’s now the whole country. That is why we are at level four of transmission. If (it was a) cluster of just hundred people, we would (be) on level one. Most of our Covid-19 centres have enough beds people should not rely on social media or hearsay,” he said recently.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Bulawayo, Harare and Matabeleland South, in that order, have the highest number of Covid-19 cases per 100 000 population.

Due to its proximity with South Africa, Matabeleland South risks having the Covid-19 variant but the PMD, Dr Rudo Chikodzere, said she could not confirm news on the coronavirus strain as such had to be confirmed at national level.

“Tests are being done to determine such but take note of warnings by deputy minister (Dr Mangwiro) who said each part in the country is now a Covid-19 hotspot,” she said.

Meanwhile the United Kingdom’s Department of Transport has extended travel restrictions to southern African countries from 4am, Saturday January 9, 2021 to protect against the spread of the new Covid-19 variant initially detected in South Africa.

“The government has responded swiftly to new evidence showing an urgent need to halt travel from all southern African countries to help prevent the spread of a new coronavirus (Covid-19) variant identified in South Africa. Entry into England will be banned to those who have travelled from or through any southern African country in the last 10 days, including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola – as well as Seychelles and Mauritius,” said UK’s Department of Transport.

The American Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also warned its US citizens to possibly avoid traveling to Zimbabwe “by any means necessary.”

In an update posted on the CDC’s website, Zimbabwe was classified as a high-risk country and travellers were advised to avoid coming to the southern African country.

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