Prof Tulio de Oliveira reveals how the new Covid-19 variant in SA was identified
De Oliveira is a bioinformatician and the director of the KZN Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The professor identified the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that's currently causing rapid infection in South Africa.
He explains that genomic surveillance has been central to the discovery of Covid-19 variants in SA and across the world.
Genomic surveillance is the study of lineages associated with infectious diseases in order to keep track of genomic changes and mutations to a virus.
Doctors from Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape first tipped him off about sudden explosion in Covid-19 cases in mid-November last year.
The professor and a team of scientists then ramped up their genomic surveillance in the metro and soon discovered the variant known as 501Y.V2.
The variant soon dominated Covid-19 infections at hospitals in Garden Route, Cape Town, and KZN.
Prof de Oliveira says the use of genome surveillance to track SARS-CoV-2 sequences has led to the discovery of new variants across the world, most recently in Japan.
He says technology and scientific expertise are needed in other countries in order to keep to map and track worrying variants of the coronavirus.
"As countries increase their genomic surveillance we are likely to see these variants emerging", the professor explains.
He says South Africans should not panic about the new 501Y.V2 but should rather focus on the vaccine strategy and the public health response to help decrease transmission.
This the work of hundreds of scientists - not only me - including both universities at UCT and Stellenbosch.Prof Tulio De Oliveira, Director of KRISP - Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (UKZN)
Every week since February last year, we have been doing what we call genomic surveillance... We sample the virus across the country... to identify which kind of lineage of SARS-CoV-2 is circulating in South Africa. That allows us to know how the virus arrives in SA.Prof Tulio De Oliveira, Director of KRISP - Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (UKZN)
Not surprisingly, 80% of the introductions came from Europe... because they were having a large number of infections at the beginning of last year around March. Also, 80% of the international air traffic, outside of the continent of Africa is Europe.Prof Tulio De Oliveira, Director of KRISP - Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (UKZN)
We've been following these lineages every month... In South Africa, we've had 20, 30, 40 different lineages circulating - all of them at very small prevalence.Prof Tulio De Oliveira, Director of KRISP - Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (UKZN)
Then all of a sudden - following a peep from clinicians at a Netcare hospital in Nelson Mandela Bay - we were seeing a very fast increase of cases in the beginning of November. So we decided to increase the genomic surveillance in that area.Prof Tulio De Oliveira, Director of KRISP - Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (UKZN)
Listen to the discussion on Breakfast with Kieno Kammies:
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