“ On that street, six people have died of corona in the last two weeks.” General practitioner Diveshni Govender points to the corner of Saffron Hill, a winding road with middle-class houses in the South African city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.
Govender has been a general practitioner for four years in Havenside, a small neighborhood where everyone knows each other. In the community centre where weddings are usually held, she has set up a small corona clinic to relieve the full hospitals. Today, there are eight coronapatics on oxygen, including a four-year-old girl.
Slow out of second wave
South Africa is slowly coming out of the second corona wave, which has struck mercilessly. There were far more infections and deaths than in the first wave. The counter is officially over 4400 deaths, but the overmortality of the past nine months is 110,000, which means that many coronas victims are not counted. Over the last two months alone, 22,000 people have died in South Africa – as many as in the eight months before.
This second wave is driven by the South African corona variant called 501Y.V2. The mutation was discovered in Durban by Tulio de Oliveira, a Brazilian working for Krisp, a research institute that performs sequencing. That means he‘s mapping the genetic code of positive test samples.
He picked up the variant after receiving worried phone calls from a hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay, a city in the neighbouring province of Eastern Cape in November last year. There they saw a lot of infections in a short period of time. In addition, the second wave came much faster than expected.
The study of the South African variant continues feverishly:
There were already several variants of the virus in South Africa, but the mutation he saw at that time was different and worried him. The Oliveira warned a World Health Organization working group that includes colleagues from all over the world. They, too, went to search for a mutation in the spike protein. Because of his tip, the British variant was discovered.
The research continues unabated. 90% of the infections in South Africa are now caused by the more contagious variant. The institute is also working hard to help identify variants in neighbouring countries. They have already found out that the mutation dominates southern Mozambique. It is inevitable that he is also wandering in other neighbouring countries. Especially around the holidays there has been a lot of travel by migrant workers between the different countries.
Old antibodies do not work properly
A few floors higher in the building where De Oliveira’s research institute is located, fellow scientists from the Africa Health Research Institute have managed to breed the mutated virus so that they can do further trials with it. The 32-year-old lab technician Sandile Cele sits in a hermetically enclosed space in a protective suit and works with the living virus. He discovered how to grow the variant with cells of humans and monkeys.
Now they‘re investigating two important things: whether people who have had the coronavirus are protected from the mutation and how effective developed vaccines are.
The first results from this lab show that antibodies from the ‘old‘ virus are not working well against the new variant, which means you can get infected again. And that vaccines work, but are less effective. In this respect, the South African mutation appears stronger than the British variant, which is better tackled by the vaccines. But a lot more research is needed.
“ And it doesn’t change what needs to be done, and that‘s vaccination,” says Alex Sigal, the virologist who runs the studies for the Africa Health Research Institute. Mr De Oliveira is afraid that poor countries will be left behind and the virus will only become smarter. Most of the African continent have not yet been shot. Only on the island group of Seychelles they have begun to vaccinate large-scale inhabitants.
South Africa received the first million vaccines yesterday. The first prick is put somewhere in the next two weeks. There is a lot of criticism that things are too slow. GP Govender holds her heart. “I’m afraid of the third wave that can hit us even harder. If we don‘t start to vaccinate massively soon, we’ll get a tsunami.”