South Africa is testing for the COVID-19 strain from India, following at least 28 cases on two vessels in ports and three air passengers originating from the subcontinent. At the same time, it is reported that two members of the Medical Advisory Committee have called for the testing and quarantining of all foreign visitors.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said that the concerns over new variants have driven “exclusion, mistrust and sometimes even racist rhetoric”, reports TimesLIVE. He said the government shared people's concerns over the importation of the B.1.617 variant now circulating in India, which has been a significant factor in the country becoming the global virus epicentre, with more than 300,000 new cases being reported daily.
“But [we] wish to reassure South Africans that we are a very capable nation that knows how to deal with the burden of a variant of concern (VOC). Our teams remain on high alert to survey, detect and contain the spread of COVID-19 in general, with heightened awareness of travellers from countries where VOCs are dominating.
“We confirm that the B.1.617 variant, circulating widely in India, has not been detected, however the genomics teams are working on some samples and we will need to allow the time it takes to sequence before we get an answer,” he said. He said the B.1.351 (or 501Y.V2) variant identified in SA late last year, which was responsible for the deadly second wave, was still the most dominant in the country.
In Durban, port health officials were told of a death on board of an approaching vessel on May 1. The vessel had departed India on April 18 and berthed on May 2 with the deceased.
“The body was subsequently transported to a state mortuary for a postmortem. Due to sampling difficulties, authorities still await the PCR test result. However, contact tracing proceeded for 21 crew members. Of those, 14 have been detected with COVID-19 and seven have tested negative.
In another incident involving a ship, this time in Gqeberha, Mkhize said that on April 25 a ship that had departed from Mombasa, Kenya.
“The ship was granted access based on a report by the shipmaster that there were no reported illnesses on board. The following day the shipmaster reported an ill crew member, who was immediately transferred out of the ship to a healthcare facility. The ill crew member together with three other crew members who were due to depart by air to their home country were immediately subjected to PCR tests on April 26.
“Upon testing positive for Covid-19, these crew members were subsequently isolated at paid lodgings. Port health, together with Transnet National Port Authority (TNPA), instructed the shipping agency to proceed with contact tracing and testing processes, with 20 crew members on board subjected to PCR tests. A further 10 crew have been detected with Covid-19 and are isolating for 10 days at designated facilities. The other 10 members that tested negative will remain in quarantine on the ship,” said Mkhize.
The minister was critical of the master of the vessel, who “made a false declaration regarding the health status of the vessel and crew”.
“SAPS has activated consequence management procedures and engaged the state prosecutor. We wish to put on record this ship was bound for India, and it had not departed from India. This increase in detection of cases at the ports of entry is of deep concern to us as government and we have been attending to this as a matter of urgency.
“We have consulted the ministerial advisory committee as well as the genomics team to guide us on the management of travellers at ports of entry during these challenging times. The government will be determining the next steps to follow and announcements will be made on the state of variants of concern in our context, and what measures will be implemented to mitigate against the importation of Covid-19 in general,” said Mkhize.
News24 quotes two unnamed Ministerial Advisory Committee members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as calling on the government to test and quarantine everyone at South Africa's borders. They say a catastrophic scenario could unfold if the Indian strain reaches South Africa's shores.
The MAC members pointed out that foreigners from many countries were allowed into South Africa if they produced a negative Covid-19 test. They explained that there was a real chance that the variant in India could enter South Africa because many other countries allowed Indian nationals to enter their countries, including the United Arab Emirates. Those travellers could then travel from those countries to South Africa.
"If they land in SA, it doesn't matter who they are or what their results are, they must go into 14-day mandatory quarantine, which is the standard operating procedure in America, the UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
The second source said South Africa had to test on arrival. "I suggest control[ling] flights and the authenticity of the tests people come in with. We cannot verify these tests – because they are saying they are coming with a negative PCR test. We need to do what Canada is doing and repeat the test before you enter our country."