A healthcare worker receives the Johnson and Johnson coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination at Khayelitsha Hospital near Cape Town. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
A healthcare worker receives the Johnson and Johnson coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination at Khayelitsha Hospital near Cape Town. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa’s Ministry of Health said on Saturday it had detected the first four cases of a new coronavirus variant that emerged in India, and was responsible for a surge of infections and deaths in the Asian country.

The four positive cases were detected in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, and all had a history of travel to India, which on Saturday tragically recorded its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities.

South Africa also detects cases of variant from UK

Testing had also picked up 11 cases of the variant B.1.1.7 first detected in the UK, the health ministry said in a statement.

Of the 11 people infected with the UK variant, eight were found in the Western Cape, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said, adding that the B.1.1.7 strain was detected in community samples and that this suggested community transmission had already set in.

“The Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa confirmed today that two variants of concern, other than the B.1.351 already dominating in South Africa, have been detected,” Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.

South Africa sees increase in Covid-19 infections

On Thursday, Dr Mkhize expressed concern about an increase in Covid-19 positive cases in SA. He said: “We have noticed a worrying trend of increasing numbers of detected cases in a number of districts. The Free State, Gauteng, Northern Cape and North West are of particular concern but every province, with the notable exception of Eastern Cape, has at least one district of concern.”

South Africa has been Africa’s worst-hit country in terms of infections and fatalities with the country’s second wave driven by a variant that was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, and that quickly dominated infections countrywide.

Mkhize encouraged South Africans to adhere to the non-pharmaceutical interventions (social distancing, masks, sanitizing) in an effort to ensure that the rise in infections do not turn into a third wave.

No need to panic

He said: “Even though the B.1.351 (prevalent in our country) has more mutations than the B.1.617 (prevalent in India), we were still able to control the spread of B.1.351 in South Africa and bring the wave down to a plateau.

“Therefore we have no need to panic about the B.1.617 because, as with any variant of the Coronavirus, the treatment is the same and the way we prevent spread is the same.”

South Africa has ordered tens of millions of vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer as it looks to ramp up its slow mass vaccination campaign, with only 382,480 frontline healthcare workers inoculated out of a population of 60 million.

As of yesterday, the total number of confirmed #COVID19 cases in South Africa was 1 594 817 the total number of deaths 54 724, and the total number of recoveries 1 514 088.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf / Reuters and Jenni Baxter / SAPeople; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Daniel Wallis / Reuters and Jenni Baxter / SAPeople)