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Tag: Covid-19

New Covid Variant Resistant to Vaccine?

The more transmissible strain of the corona virus, known as 501Y.V2, has ripped through South Africa resulting in record daily infections and deaths.  Several other countries are also trying to contain the outbreak of this new strain.  Meanwhile, Professor Penny Moore, leading a domestic research team, conducted a study that found the new strain to be vaccine-resistant in about 50% of cases.

IS 501Y.V2 VACCINE-RESISTANT?

Vaccines from AstraZeneca are set to come online at the end of the month, as South Africa rushes to ensure immunisation for its frontline healthcare workers. The manufacturers behind this particular shot are still researching how the new variant responds to their current vaccine formula, whereas Moderna – a provider that will not be providing vaccines to SA – isn’t unduly worried about the mutation.

In her research, Moore – a virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) – has found that the new variant ‘simply is not recognised’ in roughly 50% of cases. When testing for an immune response, antibodies in the blood failed to detect the virus in its latest form…

“When you test the blood of people infected in the first wave and you ask – ‘Do those antibodies in that blood recognise the new virus?’ – you find that almost 50% of cases, or nearly half of cases, there’s no longer any recognition of the new variant. In the other half of those individuals, however, there is some recognition that remains.

“I should add those are normally people who were incredibly ill, hospitalised, and mounted a very robust response to the virus. It is clear we have a problem. If you have very high antibodies to begin with, there does remain some recognition of the new virus and that’s important as we think about vaccines.”

“Some vaccines elicit very high levels of antibodies and others do not, so we need to understand whether there is some recognition by vaccine-elicited, rather than infection-elicited, antibodies.”

Professor Penny Moore

According to medical experts however, it is essential that we take these developments into context: Viruses mutate all the time, and if 50% of those tested in the study aren’t triggering an immune response, it means that 50% are. We should be encouraged rather than panicked.  The sicker you get the first time around, the more likely you are to develop the antibodies to eliminate the virus once more.

If those worst affected by COVID-19 are able to overcome the new variant, then it’s a positive we have to take alongside the negative. What is more, the process to ‘change and adapt vaccines’ to handle a different strain of the same virus is a relatively fast process, taking only weeks rather than months.

Research published by the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory has found that the immune response to the new variant was only ‘reduced slightly’ – but did occur in almost everyone tested. He claims this is ‘nothing to freak out over’.

“These vaccines elicit neutralizing antibodies and appear to be safe and effective. Activity against SARS-CoV-2 variants encoding E484K or 501Y.V2 or the K417N: E484K: N501Y combination was reduced [only] by a small margin. The decrease is seen in just about every individual tested. But it’s not something that we should be horribly freaked out about.”

Dr. Nussenzweig 

Government hospitals to accommodate Private hospital patients

Government hospitals are easing the burden of private hospitals that do not have space for new patients.  Health Minister Zweli Mkhize revealed the situation at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.  He said they were trying to understand why private hospitals were overburdened with Covid-19 patients.

“We have been uncertain of what this movement means.  At this point, we have patients referred from private to public hospitals, unlike before.  This trend started in the Eastern Cape, and we realised we need to collaborate with the private hospitals.  We can’t allow people to fall into cracks simply because private hospitals can’t accommodate them.  People must be treated anywhere”  Mkhize said.  He also said: “We have introduced rapid antigen tests to determine within 15 minutes whether a person is [Covid-19] positive or not.  Those who are positive can move on quickly while we are waiting to retest those who are negative”

Mkhize also said that the numbers have started to receding and that is due to the people following the prevention protocols.

“We believe in the effective use of masks, sanitisers and social distancing.  We urge people to do what they have been doing well.”

SA Economy – The Worst is yet to come

If you have been following the news over the past two weeks as the second wave hit the country, you will be familiar with the bleak outlook for South Africa’s economy going forward.

In a research note published on Monday (18 January), Stellenbosch University’s Bureau for Economic Research (BER) pointed to the country’s Covid-19 numbers, which reached a weekly record in the first week of Janaury, as a concern.

“Subsequent daily releases of Covid-19 statistics suggest the picture has worsened since, with a record high of more than 800 deaths due to Covid-related complications recorded on Thursday (14 January) alone.

“Daily new infections have come down in recent days, but remain very high.”

Continued Load Shedding

The analysts said that the picture for the first quarter of 2021 is also more muted after stage 2 load shedding was implemented from Tuesday as 14,748 MW of generation capacity was unavailable due to unplanned maintenance, breakdowns and outages delays.

This was in addition to the 5,385 MW being unavailable due to planned maintenance and in total amounts to over 40% of Eskom’s installed generation capacity.

Over the weekend, Eskom also said that positive Covid-19 cases among employees were negatively affecting their operations and that of their suppliers.

“Looking further ahead, it is very concerning that Eskom’s forecast of demand and supply dynamics suggests that there is a risk of load-shedding every week for the next three months,” the BER said.

Financial support 

Despite restrictions continuing to weigh heavily on the hospitality and liquor industries, in particular, no mention has been made on additional (income) support for affected workers or businesses, according to the BER.

“However, later in the week encouraging reports emerged that business and labour are in negotiations with the government to extend the UIF/Ters scheme which ended in October.

“While Ramaphosa confirmed on Friday that government itself has no room to provide further fiscal support, it is estimated that the UIF has – if carefully managed – enough assets to allow for a further extension.

“This is especially so because the group of people affected by current restrictions is much smaller than before, but a particularly vulnerable group as their sectors have taken the strain from lockdown regulations for most of 2020. ”

The announcement by SA Breweries (SAB) that it would cancel another R2.5 billion of 2021 capital expenditure should not come as a surprise then, said the BER.

SAB had placed the investment under review pending “greater policy and regulatory certainty” which did not materialise amid a third outright alcohol ban and now warns it may have to consider even more “difficult measures”.

Vaccine Procurement and rollout

The BER said that there is still little clarity on South Africa’s actual vaccine strategy, including whether it refers to inoculations requiring only one shot, or two shots to be effective.

There are reports that  Treasury has agreed on an expedited payment process with the health department to buy more vaccines within a month, which is encouraging.

“Other tentative positive news is that, pending regulatory approval, the first batch of vaccines acquired from the Covax pool (in total set to cover 10% of South Africa’s population) will arrive in February already.”

Initial data from Israel, which has now provided a single vaccine dose to about 1 in 4 people, already shows promising signs of a slowdown in the rate of transmission and underscores how important it is to start the process as quickly as possible.

In terms of vaccination progress, Israel is followed by the United Arab Emirates (19% of the population), and Bahrain and the UK with about 6-8% of the population having received one dose already.

In the US, the percentage of people vaccinated remains lower (just below 4%) due to the large population, but their 7-day rolling average of daily vaccinations is now the highest in the world at close to 800,000 doses administered per day.

Prepare to pay More Tax to Cover Vaccine Rollout

South Africa’s National Treasury said that it is considering raising taxes as one of several possible mechanisms to fund the vaccination drive against Covid-19. The government views the procurement and rollout of vaccines as a public good and is committed to financing their rollout, with or without support from the private sector and medical schemes, according to Business Day newspaper.

Other options the Treasury is considering for this purpose include widening the budget deficit and reprioritizing government spending. The pandemic was a good case for emergency funding according to Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane.

The department of health has now estimated a maximum cost of R20 billion ($1.3 billion) to vaccinate the entire country, while more recent internal estimates done by the Treasury are far lower than this Business Day reported. South Africans has criticised the South African Government’s scientists for the slow pace of procuring the vaccines.

Details about discussions with vaccine manufacturers were only released this month, and a charity had to pay the deposit for South Africa to join the Covax program in order to procure vaccines for the 1st planned rollout.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country will get an initial 20 million doses, with the first batch of 1.5 million shots of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc likely to arrive in January.

No Retrenchments Please

Fedusa, the Federation of Unions of South Africa, has called for a moratorium on retrenchments during the level 3 restrictions.

The union said that it welcomed the extended restrictions as a means to curb the continued spread of the coronavirus, but that they were concerned about the effect on the tourism, personal care, entertainment and hospitality industries.  According to Fedusa, these sectors are still struggling to recover from the level 5 and 4 lockdown and the devastating impact it had.   The union believes that companies should consider all possible options instead of continuously using workers as scapegoats.  In the light of the hardships experienced by its members, Fedusa feels that the adjusted level 3 restrictions is a bittersweet move which, while protecting the health of its members, continues to decimate the industries.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs have already been lost due to the pandemic in both the formal and the informal sector according to the federation.  Riefdah Ajam, the union’s president, said that government’s stimulus package had also failed to deliver the silver bullet that many had put their hopes on, with inadequate results.

“The loan scheme and tax relief measures have yet to deliver the results that were promised considering that only a meager R15 billion of the R200 billion in capacity relief to SMMEs in particular in relation to the tourism and hospitality sectors were provided.”

Fedusa said that large-scale retrenchments would leave many families financially paralysed and it would further escalate the already staggering number of unemployed South Africans.

ANCYL opens case for fake news about Covid-19 treatment

The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) crisis committee open a case against one of its own, yesterday at the Brooklyn police station for allegedly peddling fake news about Covid-19.

Yesterday, four members of the committee – which included Ronald Maela, Vutomi Nkuna, Katlego Mamabolo, Koena Mpya and Silence Sibiya – opened a case against the ANCYL in Tshwane for spreading false information.

This follows a social media campaign by the region that had encouraged steaming as a preventative measure or cure for Covid-19.

“We call upon our people to embrace an old African remedy which comes at no cost,” reads the post. “Steaming two or three times a day, whether tested positive for Covid-19 or not. Steam using eucalyptus oil, Vicks, and hot stones. The virus becomes paralysed under extreme heat,” the Tshwane ANCYL claimed.

A poster used widely on social media also claims that there are “Covid-19-fighting pH foods”, including bananas, lemons, avocado, watercress, pineapple and garlic.

“All we have to do to eliminate the virus is to consume more alkaline foods above the acidity levels of the virus,” it claimed.

According to the crisis committee’s Musawenkosi Ngobese, the charges are against the whole regional executive committee.

“This is bogus and voodoo science which has not been researched and analysed. So we condemn this type of misleading information as it could be deadly to those who apply it. It portrays a lack of sensitivity regarding the dire situation,” he said.

Ngobese said that they could not merely resolve it, as an organisation, among themselves instead of involving the police.

“Absolutely no, this is not just an organisational problem, it affects the country. In fact, it affects the world. And if needs be that we expose one of our own for the greater good of the country, then so be it.”

He said under the Disaster Management Act, publishing fake news linked to the coronavirus was illegal.

“Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the coronavirus (Covid-19) is liable for prosecution.”

It’s official: State of Disaster laws extended by Dlamini-Zuma

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has flexed her administrative might as the COGTA Minister, by officially extending the State of Disaster laws in South Africa. The publication, issued on Wednesday evening, was essentially a formality after President Ramaphosa confirmed that Level 3 lockdown laws would remain in place ‘for the foreseeable future’.

WHAT ARE THE NEW LEVEL 3 RULES?

However, the rules have come under intense scrutiny since they were tweaked on Monday – and as per lockdown tradition, Dlamini-Zuma has found herself bearing the brunt of the criticism. The ANC veteran was slammed by party colleague Derek Hanekom earlier this week, after she took responsibility for ‘redefining the meaning of a beach’.

“A ‘beach’ means the sandy, pebbly or rocky shore between the high-water mark and low-water mark adjacent to the sea. or an estuary mouth – extending 1 000 meters inland from the mouth.”

“The definition also refers to any location within 100 metres of the high-water mark, including the sea and estuary themselves adjacent to the beach. Private property is excluded. An estuary is defined by section 1 of the National Environmental Management: Integrated Coastal Management Act, 2008.”

“Beaches that are open to the public in non-hot-spots, such as in the Northern Cape shall only be open between 6:00 and 19:00, and will be monitored for compliance with all health protocols and social distancing measures.”

Amended Disaster Management Act

HOW LONG WILL THE STATE OF DISASTER BE IN PLACE?

A total of 20 land borders have been closed down, and funeral services have been given a two-hour time limit. With the State of Disaster laws now in place until Monday 15 February 2021, these new regulations will remain for another four weeks and four days – not that anyone’s counting, of course: We may be under Level 3 restrictions for the long haul.

“I, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, as designated under section 3 of the Disaster Management Act, in terms of section 27(5)(c) of the Act, hereby further extend the national State of Disaster that I previously extended to 15 January 2021 in Government Notice 1341.”

“The State of Disaster will [now be in place] up to 15 February 2021, taking into account the need to continue augmenting the existing legislation and contingency arrangements undertaken by organs of state to address the impact of the disaster.”

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma extends the State of Disaster Act for South Africa

DA wants ‘flexibility’ on some Level 3 lockdown restrictions

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has said that the best way South Africa can navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, while waiting for the vaccine, would be to limit the damage from lockdown restrictions by taking a more differentiated approach.

DA leader John Steenhuisen has criticised President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the country staying on Alert Level 3 of the Lockdown, with some amended restrictions.

“South Africa is effectively bankrupt. We cannot afford to support businesses and jobs affected by restrictions. So, we therefore don’t have the luxury of restricting the good with the bad,” Steenhuisen said.

“We need a differentiated, preventive approach rather than the current blunt instrument of uniform strategy across the country. The blanket ban approach destroys lives and livelihoods unnecessarily and it distracts and diverts law enforcement resources to areas that don’t make a difference at the expense of areas that do”

DA leader John Steenhuisen

The so-called family meeting comes as South Africa reported a record spike in daily coronavirus cases and deaths the last few weeks and follows consultations with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), which governs the current lockdown.

Most of the measures he announced on 28 December 2020, will remain in place – including the ban on gatherings.

The curfew has however been adjusted to 21:00 until 05:00 – while wearing a mask in public still remains compulsory.

Another contentious lockdown restriction which remains in place is the ban on alcohol sales and on-site consumption – this has paid off as healthcare workers have reported less trauma cases in hospitals due to alcohol, making them more productive in the fight against COVID-19.

LOCKDOWN LEVEL 3: THE DA’S SUGGESTIONS TO GOVERNMENT

  • Allow provincial/district flexibility between level 2 and level 3, depending on the level of pressure on hospitals
  • To take pressure off trauma facilities and reduce superspreader events, target alcohol restrictions where the real risks are, but allow low-risk alcohol-related trading.
  • Lift the beach ban to bring relief to coastal economies, as the chance of overcrowding is unlikely due to the festive period being over
  • Lift the curfew
  • Further limiting gatherings where necessary

The DA has also called on Ramaphosa to give clarity on the 20 million COVID-19 vaccine doses which are headed to our shores, particularly on where they are coming from and when they can be expected.

Ramaphosa Will Address the Nation Tonight – Lockdown

The Presidency on Monday announced  that President Cyril Ramaphosa would address the country on developments around the coronavirus pandemic.

The national state of disaster, which has been extended every 30 days since its announcement and in line with the law since COVID-19 hit our shores, will come to an end on 15 January 2021. The president is expected to make an announcement to this effect, as well as address the country on further lockdown restrictions or lifting of rules.  In the face of high daily increases and alarming drop in recovery rate, the latter seems unlikely though.

Rumours of Level 4 Lockdown has been making the rounds on social media and is important that citizens only pay heed to regulations and changes announced by the presidency or by a relevant minister.  The address tonight will take place at 20:00

“President Ramaphosa also hosted a virtual engagement on Sunday 10 January 2021 between government and interfaith leaders on the COVID-19 Risk Adjusted Strategy which is an inclusive national effort that enables adaptive responses to the shifting pandemic,” the Presidency said through a statement.

“This engagement focused on the unfolding pandemic in the country and on the continent, including efforts to secure vaccines for all.”

Harsh Lockdowns as more Covid Waves Expected for 2021

The Bureau of Economic Research (BER) earlier today released their forecasts for 2021, predicting ‘a third and even fourth wave of COVID-19‘, and the extension of tougher lockdown measures.

This worrying forecast is further fuelled by South Africa’s questionable vaccine procurement strategy. Despite announcing the arrival of 1.5 million vaccines for healthcare workers and priority cases by the end of February, the general public faces a much longer waiting time for immunisation. This lag carries some significant economic consequences:

“While local exports should benefit from an expected much improved global economy and likely heightened global risk appetite as the global recovery gathers momentum, SA consumer spending and non-energy private sector fixed investment may remain subdued through 2021.”

“There is also a risk that investors will start to distinguish between those emerging markets that are rolling out mass inoculation programmes and those that are lagging on this front, and at the same time lack the fiscal resources to support economies through further lockdowns.”

BER statement

The BER has openly criticised the Health Department. According to the BER, the failure to properly accelerate the vaccine programme gives South Africa a ‘bad score’ on all fronts for the year ahead. The group is also concerned that ‘a third, possibly even a fourth wave’ of COVID-19 can ravage the country before herd immunity is developed:

“SA’s failure to timeously secure a bulk supply of vaccines highlights an important nuance to the outlook for 2021… On current evidence, SA scores badly on all fronts. In addition, given the latest COVID-19 stats in SA, the current adjusted Level 3 lockdown restrictions could be extended beyond the initial date of 15 January.”

“SA runs the risk of not (fully) participating in the widely expected vaccine-induced global growth acceleration in the latter stages of 2021. There is no longer any doubt that COVID-19 will come in waves. As a result, countries who find themselves at the back of the queue for vaccines face an almost inevitable damaging third, and potentially fourth, wave of the virus.”

BER statement

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