Inside Covid-19: Top scientist on South Africa variant – how it changes vaccine race, pandemic

The South African variant of Covid-19 has changed the outlook for the way the coronavirus pandemic is likely to unfold – in South Africa as well as elsewhere. Scientists in South Africa say there is a “reasonable concern” that the new variant of Covid-19 sweeping across the country might prove to be more resistant to current vaccines being rolled out in the UK and elsewhere, and warn that it makes the need for a global roll-out of vaccines “even more critical”. In this episode of Inside Covid-19, we speak to one of South Africa’s leading scientists in the fight against Sars-CoV-2. Professor Shabir Madhi, a globally renowned professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, has been leading trials for the vaccine in South Africa. He shares the details of the work going on behind the scenes to understand the mutations and what this means for vaccine development, the impact of the disease on people and how governments can respond to the changing threat from the disease. Also in this episode, we hear from our partners at Bloomberg on what we know about the source of the pandemic and why bats are an important host of some of humanity’s most feared viruses. First, a snapshot of the Covid-19 news making world headlines. – Jackie Cameron

Inside Covid-19 news

  • As of 7 January, just under 2m people have died of coronavirus worldwide, with about 88m cases reported worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre.
  • The US has the highest number of reported cases – just over 21m – and the largest number of reported deaths, at nearly 362,000.
  • India has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases, at more than 10m, and the third-highest number of deaths from the disease, with more than 150,000 lives claimed by the novel coronavirus. Brazil has the second-highest number of deaths – not far off 200,000 – and ranks third on the list of countries hardest hit by Covid-19.
  • South Africa is the hardest hit on the continent, according to official tallies of cases and deaths. It has the 12th-highest number of cases, at more than 1,1m and 15th largest death toll, with nearly 38,000 reported as dying of the disease.
  • South Africa laid out a long-awaited plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, saying it will cost R20.6bn to inoculate two thirds of the population and the state will be the sole purchaser. The government will agree contracts with suppliers and allocate vaccines to regional authorities and the private sector, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a presentation to Parliament on Thursday.
  • The majority of the doses will come from AstraZeneca Plc, which has set a price of R54 each compared with Moderna Inc’s R536, said Discovery’s Dr Noach. Mkhize said he expects to start obtaining vaccines next month and inoculate 67% of the population by the end of the year. The plan comes as the government faces mounting criticism over its lack of progress in procuring vaccines, with no supply deals signed with pharmaceutical companies even as several other countries start their programs. Mkhize briefed the portfolio committee on the status of health care services as President Cyril Ramaphosa and other top officials were considering strengthening lockdown measures. The government has said previously it expects to begin receiving shots in the second quarter of 2021 to cover a 10th of its about 60 million people through the Covax initiative, which is trying to ensure equitable access to vaccines.
  • South African medical insurers will pay for a Covid-19 vaccine for as many people who don’t have coverage as they have members and expect the program to cost as much as R7bn ($464 million). The subsidy will mean that including medical aid members the companies will finance vaccines for 14 million adults in the country of 60 million people, Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive officer of Discovery Health Ltd., said in an interview on Wednesday. Discovery has already set aside the money, he said. “The ultimate effect is the one-to-one cross subsidy,” he said. The plan is being led by Adrian Gore, the CEO and co-founder of Discovery, the parent of Discovery Health and Africa’s biggest health insurer, after he was approached by South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. South Africa’s government is facing increasing criticism from labor unions, health officials and opposition parties for its failure to procure vaccines even as at least 37 nations begin inoculating their populations.
  • South Africa has yet to conclude any direct supply agreements with pharmaceutical companies. It expects to begin receiving shots in the second quarter to cover a 10th of its citizens through the Covax initiative, which is trying to ensure equitable access to vaccines. “There is no more important health care requirement than the vaccination of all South Africans,” Noach said. “It has economic benefits to the country in restoring some normality to business and trade. It’s far cheaper than a lockdown to pay for the vaccines.” Pharmaceutical companies will only negotiate directly with governments. Still, the procurement may ultimately be handled on behalf of the government by the Solidarity Fund, a charity thats collected money from some of the country’s richest people and biggest companies, he said. “We will take whatever reliable vaccine we can get and whatever comes along first,” Noach said.
  • More than 1,000 coronavirus deaths have been confirmed in the UK’s highest daily toll since April, reports The Telegraph newspaper. A further 1,041 Britons have died with Covid-19, taking the UK’s death toll to 77,346, according to the Department of Health. This is the highest death toll since April 12. It is also the highest figure recorded in the space of 24 hours since the start of the pandemic, as the figures logged in April were subsequently revised upwards. It takes the UK’s caseload since the start of the pandemic to 2.83 million. The UK is number five on the list of countries with the highest number of cases and deaths from the disease.
  • Britain could easily remain under lockdown until April, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that lockdown restrictions are only likely to be removed on a “gradual” basis until the end of March; he has promised schools would the first thing to reopen.
  • Mr Johnson has said that vaccines are “our means of escape” and pledged that the Government “will use every available second of this lockdown to place this shield around the elderly and the vulnerable”, says The Telegraph. A doctor reportedly warned that the UK’s NHS is facing the most dangerous four weeks of the pandemic so far as he rubbished rumours circulating online that hospitals were empty. Dr Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist and national clinical adviser to NHS England’s emergency preparedness resilience and response team for the pandemic, said: “You can believe me that the hospitals are full, or you can believe people who are sitting at a keyboard who’ve never put on a shred of PPE and never seen the inside of an intensive care unit, let alone during Covid-19.”
  • Indonesia’s plan to begin mass inoculations against Covid-19 will prioritise working age adults over the elderly – with the aim of reaching herd immunity fast and reviving the economy. It is a strategy that will be closely watched by other nations, says The Telegraph. Several countries, such as the United States and Britain, have already begun vaccinations by giving priority to elderly people who are more vulnerable to the respiratory disease. In Indonesia, working age adults will be vaccinated after frontline health workers and public servants.
  • China has played down concerns that a World Health Organization mission had been blocked from investigating the origins of Covid-19, saying discussions on access are still taking place amid a spike in local infections. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing that the problem was “not just about visas” for the team.
  • Officials in the state of São Paulo, where a prominent medical research institute carried out a large study of the vaccine made by the Beijing-based Sinovac, said the inoculation had an efficacy rate of 78 percent, reports The New York Times. A second Chinese vaccine was found to be effective by Brazilian researchers, bolstering chances it could be rolled out in the developing world.
  • “It’s a theoretical concern. A reasonable concern… that the South African variant might be more resistant,” Prof Shabir Madhi, who has led trials for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa and is described as the country’s leading vaccinologist, told the BBC. Prof Madhi was responding to comments by the UK government and scientists. He said a definitive answer would probably come in a matter of weeks, with extensive testing already under way in South Africa. In this Inside Covid-19 podcast, BizNews interviews Professor Madhi about the latest thinking on Covid-19, vaccines and how the country should manage the crisis.

Professor Shabir Madhi:  Covid-19 South Africa variant – what it means for halting the pandemic

“If the South African study, both in the lab studies as well as the clinical studies, indicates that the vaccine efficacy is being compromised because of this variant, then we’ve got a big problem and not just in South Africa. That becomes a global problem.”

Epidemiologists will have to rework data, with “resurgence at a greater magnitude…We would end up seeing more cases of hospitalisation relative to what we experienced with an earlier version of the virus. And unfortunately, we will see more deaths occur relative to what happened with the earlier version of the virus”.

“A level five lockdown doesn’t get rid of the virus. All it does is actually delay the resurgence…The main thing that we need to do is try to limit the rate of spread of the virus.”

The British government is quite naive to believe that this is a problem in South Africa and that preventing South Africans from travelling to the United Kingdom is in any way going to assist the United Kingdom…This variant has basically pretty much probably been seeded in many countries where there’s been a large enough numbers of individuals that have travelled to South Africa

For more on Covid-19 in South Africa, listen to:

Read also: Covid-19 vaccines will arrive in SA this month for health workers – Mkhize