New Covid -19 strain likely imported Vaccine rollout raises hope
Veronica Gwaze and Emmanuel Kafe
The country is in the grip of a second wave of a highly contagious and virulent coronavirus, which is “highly likely” to have been imported.
Infections and fatalities have been rising exponentially, particularly during the festive season, after having successfully managed the virus in September and October.
Tuesday was by far the deadliest day since the country reported its first fatality — broadcaster Zororo Makamba who died on March 23 last year — as 34 people died, while inflections rose by a record 1 365.
Health experts say the recent spike in cases shows the country is in the throes of the second wave of the virus.
“When you have a pandemic or an epidemic, figures need to be monitored daily, weekly and monthly. Graphs should be drawn for easy monitoring of the virus’ infection patterns. Progressively, when the figures reach or exceed the previous peak, it becomes a second wave,” explained Dr Agnes Mahomva, who is the Chief Co-ordinator of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Office of the President and Cabinet.
“Not only has the number reached that of the first peak, but we have surpassed it by far. During the festive season, we saw the total number of cases in a week being the highest we ever received in a fortnight since the beginning (of the outbreak) in March . . .
“With figures increasing daily, we concluded that this could be something new, hence we saw the need to undertake a study, which will give us a clear picture of what exactly we are fighting.
“Results will determine the best possible ways to fight the spread,” she said.
The first wave peaked in August last year.
During the month, more than 135 people succumbed to the disease, with the highest fatalities being 18 deaths recorded on August 13.
Single-day highs of 13 deaths were reported on August 6 and August 13.
But there are fears record infections and fatalities currently being realised are being driven by a new variant, which is likely to have been imported.
Director of Epidemiology and Disease Control in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Portia Manangazira, said although the second wave — which is characterised by ‘heightened and intensified local transmission’ — was probably caused by laxity in observing life-saving health guidelines and protocols, it was highly likely that the resurgence is caused by a new imported strain of the virus.
“The strain has been imported into Zimbabwe, but the laboratory is in the process of conducting genetic sequencing.
“We will soon have the sequencing information depicting the circulating strains,” she said.
Other experts also agree.
Naomi Rutenga, a virologist and microbiologist who runs a private clinical laboratory in the capital, believes there is “a pretty high likelihood” that the new strain of the virus identified in South Africa could be circulating locally.
Investigations are currently underway.
Dr Mahomva said: “Our scientists are working on it and we will soon update the nation on whether we are dealing with a similar strain or an imported one.”
What is worrying health authorities is that the new strain is highly contagious and easily transmissible.
Apart from being increasingly difficult to detect, it is also infecting previously unaffected populations and age groups such as children.
President of the South Africa Medical Research Council, Glenda Gray, recently indicated that scientists are presently conducting studies to ascertain the clinical impact of the new variant. The Government has since imposed a hard lockdown through which only essential service providers are allowed to operate.
Gatherings at funerals have been limited to 30 from the previous 50, while weddings and church services have been suspended for 30 days. Schools reopening has been postponed indefinitely. Bars and restaurants have also been shut. Further, a 6pm to 6am curfew has been introduced.
Awareness campaigns on the need to avoid unnecessary movements, including the need to wear face coverings, observe social distancing and sanitising, have been ramped up.
It is believed that all these measures would help break the cycle of transmissions and prevent healthcare centres from being overwhelmed.
However, examination classes are still going ahead as planned.
Zimsec Ordinary and Advanced Level exams started on January 5 and will run up to February 5.
“The schools are getting PPEs, all invigilators and supporting personnel should be in protective clothing as we fight to record the least possible number of infections,” said Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Ambassador Cain Mathema.
“We are aware of the new variant in South Africa and the potential dangers we could be facing, but people should not panic because everything is in place and moving according to plan.”
If a candidate tests positive for the virus, Ambassador Mathema added, they will sit for their exams under special conditions.
A thorough inspection of all schools was recently conducted. Forty-eight schools in Bulawayo are being provided with potable water to ensure safety.
When the rate of infections slowed down in September and October, many thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us.
They subsequently dropped their guard.
For one family based in Highlands, Harare, it proved to be unwise to let their maid travel to visit her family in Bulawayo during the festive season. At first they were reluctant, but they eventually had to let her go.
A week after the holidays, she returned.
Days after resuming her duties, she fell sick.
The family sought medical assistance for her, after which they were advised to have her tested for Covid-19. This was not without its challenges. After unsuccessfully trying to have her tested at a Government facility, they were left with no option but to opt for a private lab.
It cost them an arm and a leg.
They had to part with US$250 to have the entire family, including the maid, tested.
Private labs are charging between US$50 and US$100 for Covid-19 PCR tests per individual.
“It was a frustrating process but we had no choice as the tests had to be conducted. We were forced to dig into our kids’ school fees to meet the costs,” said the employer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“She tested positive and I now have her and our entire family in isolation, though my husband and two children tested negative.”
Rising infections and fatalities are not peculiar to Zimbabwe, as the region and beyond are also reeling from the resurgence of the deadly virus.Between April and August last year, average daily fatalities were 5 000, but the figures have since doubled.
On Wednesday, the UK announced the highest single-day death toll of more than 1000.
Africa has seen the biggest global rise in cases over the last week, with the new variant thought to be driving the surge.
Authorities in 47 African countries have registered an average of 73 000 new Covid-19 infections per week since the end of November, compared to an average of 30 000 new weekly cases in October, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Since December, the number of new infections rose by 13 percent.
The rise has largely been driven by South Africa, where a new, more infectious variant of Covid-19 is spreading fast and a rise in deaths has left morgues running out of space.
In the last month, countries like Mali, Uganda, Namibia, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen an increase in cases.Many countries have naturally tightened Covid-19 restrictions.
At 2,7 million cases, Africa remains the least affected continent. The rollout of new vaccines, however, is raising hope the carnage might soon end. Dr Mahomva said Government was putting systems and measures in place to ensure the rollout would be seamless.
“Once we decide to vaccinate, it will be a smooth run, but for now I cannot tell when exactly, but soon,” she said.
Dr Manangazira added: “As a country, we have started consulting and a vaccine readiness assessment provided us information on what was available and what needs to be addressed in order to get the most out of the vaccine.”
Governance structures of the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) and Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee on Health (IACCH) have been meeting under guidance of the Permanent Secretary for Health and Child Care (Dr Jasper Chimedza) on Covid-19 vaccinations.