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Should SA's scientists have disclosed variant so soon? Prof Preiser says yes

27 November 2021 7:22 AM
Tags:
Covid-19 variant

John Maytham speaks to Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Virology Head at Stellenbosch University who says there were enough alarm bells.
  • While it is a difficult decision Preiser believes openness and transparency are always the best choice
  • Prof Preiser says SA has one of the top networks in the world in identifying the new problems emerging regarding Covid-19 variants
  • There needs to be quite good evidence for impending risk before the alarm bells are rung and in this case there were, argues Prof Preiser

© asiandelight/123rf.com

Should South Africa's Covid-19 scientists have disclosed the information about the new variant called B.1.1.529 so soon - or rather waited to be more certain of any potential risks of increased transmission and being an escape mutation, asks John Maytham?

I myself am quite conflicted about this. But ultimately openness and full transparency are always best even though it may have negative consequences in the short term and South Africa would never want to lose the trust of international partners.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

At the same time, the immediate effects are devastating...but if this had come out two weeks later it would still have shattered the Christmas tourism season.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

South Africa's scientists and researchers have again done an excellent job, he notes.

I think we are really at the top, together with a few other countries when it comes to identifying new problems and that is done through an amazing network and it takes a lot of effort behind the scenes.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

Clinicians, lab teams, epidemiologists, and modelers all contribute to this network he adds.

There is a lot of hard work going on and I think this is our only chance to ever get on top of this virus.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

What do we know so far about the new variant?

What we know so far and what needs to still be confirmed is that this virus has mutations that we know from other variants are deleterious - they give it negative properties - and what we have seen in terms of its spread is that it could be quite explosive, so it is best to know early.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

I personally hope that we will see strengthened precautions regarding no-mask gatherings to be reintroduced quite soon.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

It is a formidable virus from all that we know so far. We are busy investigating it further so the full extent of what it can do and can't do will become clearer over the weeks to come.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

It is better to be safe than to be sorry.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

Whatever choice is made there is always a downside, he says.

For example, he recounts another variant the network was watching carefully that was not disclosed in this way as it had not been significant.

There needs to be quite good evidence for impending risk before the alarm bells are rung.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

He adds that other countries who are also watching had then discovered the new variant and traced it to South Africa.

They would have asked why we were not on top of it and I don't think that would have softened the blow to our economy.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

What is Preiser's response to the latest report that the variant has been identified in Belgium in a person who flew via Turkey from Egypt with no South African contact, asks John?

What it may show is that other countries are sitting on a problem and not recognising it as such...That is flabbergasting and I cannot really interpret this Belgium case but we need to know more about it to put it into perspective.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

He says this kind of surveillance is demanding and difficult and he understands some countries are not doing it as thoroughly.

Perhaps some countries are flying blind.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

Insufficient vaccine rollout is also a big issue.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University

The impact of the new variant is not yet known, but he says it has some hallmarks in its genetic structure that are concerning and may lead to what he described as an explosive outcome.

We need to implement the non-pharmaceutical interventions - mask-wearing, keeping a social distance, no large gatherings...and we need to get vaccinated.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser, Division of Medical Virology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences - Stellenbosch University



27 November 2021 7:22 AM
Tags:
Covid-19 variant

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