The real impact of the Coronavirus on the South African population as well as forecasts of what possibly lies ahead was the focus of an informative College of Health Sciences webinar.
Facilitated by the College’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation, Professor Mosa Moshabela, the robust discussion delved into the importance of vaccinations, understanding the risk of transmission and the different waves of the pandemic, strengthening herd immunity and finally learning to co-exist with the virus.
Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at UKZN and an honorary research associate at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), said: ‘We’ve seen the waves being driven by the different variants and at this stage it is impossible to predict what the next variant will be but we can expect a fifth wave.’
Lessells went on to describe the importance of a person being fully vaccinated in order to avoid getting a serious illness if infected with the virus. ‘Unfortunately, the majority of people in South Africa over the age of 50 – the group most at high risk of hospitalisation and even death – have not received their first dose of the vaccine. As one moves to the lower age groups, the uptake is much less. Thus far, fewer than a million of the population have had the booster vaccine.’
According to Lessells, although the 4th wave may be over in South Africa with transmission levels relatively low it is not the time to relax and stop following basic protocols such as sanitising, wearing a face mask in closed spaces and practising social distancing. ‘The virus is still with us but in a different phase. We need to think about the long-term public health response but currently the protection of people highest at risk is where the focus should be. Adherence has been good but going back to the basics is key to safe guard environments favourably predisposed for high transmission rates.’
Clinical Virologist and Head of Department in the UKZN Discipline of Virology and KZN National Health Laboratory Service Dr Nokukhanya Msomi told the audience that antibodies reduce the risk of infection whilst T-cells play an important role in controlling disease. ‘We need to have all levels of immunity,’ said Msomi. ‘Antibodies do wane over time so one layer of defence is not enough. Vaccinations followed by recommended booster doses enhance protection. The vaccine also minimises the chances of getting Long COVID-19.’
She mentioned that at present the public health benefit of vaccinating youngsters aged between 5 and 11 was marginal.
Msomi added that it was still essential to test people who were symptomatic as well as those following an outbreak in a congregate setting. ‘The virus is not going away. We must strengthen our protection.’
The speakers predicted a fifth COVID-19 wave in April or May, possibly with a new variant, but felt that it could be a smaller resurgence, saying it all depended on what the new variant was. ‘For now, it is clear the virus is here to stay and it is vital to maintain basic prevention protocols.’
The webinar can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcGmJRkL-Oc.
Words: MaryAnn Francis