South Africa free beta variant tourism
Credits: iStockPhoto / nemchinowa

JOHANNESBURG, 16 SEPTEMBER 2021 – South Africa is free of the Beta Covid variant according to official data issued by the South African government. The data indicates that there has been no measurable level of Beta genomes sequenced for at least two weeks in the country. This is hopefully good news for travellers!

Following the rapid decline in its overall infection rates since July and the dominance of the Delta variant in South Africa, most European countries have now removed travel restrictions for South Africa for fully vaccinated travellers and regular flights to Johannesburg and Cape Town have been re-established.

Except for the UK…

The UK remains a notable exception, with visitors from South Africa obligated to stay in a government-appointed hotel where they must quarantine for 10 days at their own cost. It’s been a deterrent for many UK citizens who may otherwise have holidayed in SA, as well as for SA expats in the UK who have wanted to return home to SA on holiday but can’t face the expensive quarantine when they return to the UK.

SAPeople follower Simon Barker says: “I can’t wait to return. I have been stuck here in England for too long. I miss SA and its incredible people so much.” He says he would have to pay over £2,000 for the quarantine. He’s hopeful though. “There are changes imminent, and hoping SA is taken off the red list soon.”

David Frost, CEO of the South African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) – the voice of inbound tourism to SA – says: “South Africa’s infection rate is now tracking at a sixth of the UK’s and below key destinations on the UK’s amber travel list, such as the US, France, Germany and Greece.

“The only variant of concern circulating in South Africa is Delta – the same as the UK, and we have the best testing and sequencing capabilities on the African continent.” Frost adds:

“There is absolutely no scientific basis on which the UK can continue to maintain its travel ban on South Africa, and on behalf of the 1.5 million people who rely on the South African tourism sector for work, we are now calling for an urgent review of the available data by UK authorities.”

Emile Stipp, Chief Health Actuary for Discovery Limited, South Africa’s leading medical insurance provider, says: “Beta has effectively disappeared in South Africa, and with an estimated 70-80% of South Africans already exposed to the virus, the accelerating vaccine programme will only build on what is now a formidable level of community protection against the Delta variant now currently in circulation.”

The Beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa in December 2020, has not gained any meaningful presence outside South Africa owing to its low transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines against it.

Of the four major variants of concern identified by the World Health Organisation, Beta has the lowest transmissibility advantage (25%) over the ancestral Covid variant that originated in China. By comparison, the Delta variant is 95% more transmissible, and now accounts for over 96% of all genomes sequenced in South Africa in the latest data issued by the National Institute of Clinical Diseases (NICD).

Early small-scale studies of the Beta variant indicated a potential vaccine evasion risk, but these fears have been disproved in larger real-world research such as that released by the Canadian Immunization Network in July 2021, which revealed that a single dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine conferred an 82% protection against severe disease and death from Beta… protection that was estimated to rise to 95% on delivery of a second dose, comparable to all the major vaccines deployed in the US and Europe.

AstraZeneca endorsed the research, announcing that its vaccine provided “good to excellent protection” against the Beta variant. The latest Covid-19 insights on the UK’s Office for National Statistics site today don’t even both mentioning Beta – the latest stats refer only to Alpha (first identified in the UK) and Delta (first identified in India).