The Department of Health says that a widely shared social media post, purportedly by the Ministry of Health, calling for the return of face masks, is fake.
The fake post instructed all members of the public to return to wearing face masks in public places in the wake of an apparent detection of a new variant of Covid-19, XBB 1.5.
However, the department has confirmed that any cases of the new variant, a subvariant of Omicron, have been detected.
XBB 1.5 has spread rapidly across the US and is believed to be the most transmissible subvariant of Omicron. It is likely to spread globally.
Experts say that there is no reason to think that XBB 1.5 should be of more concern than other variants. They also say that vaccinations and booster shots remain the greatest protection against Covid-19.
On Saturday the health department tweeted that it had been alerted about the highly transmissible variant and is currently in discussions with scientists to gather more information, including its transmissibility and severity.
The message on social media which the department called misleading indicated the new variant was more dangerous than earlier versions, that sometimes there were no symptoms and that a range of practices, including the wearing of masks, would be necessary.
Spokesperson Foster Mohale said they would like to dismiss the earlier reports as fake news by “faceless sources whose sole intention is to create unnecessary panic”.
“The fact of the matter is, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a notification [in October 2022] on the Omicron sublineages BQ.1 and XBB detected around the world as part of ongoing work to track variants by Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE),” he said.
Mohale said the role of the TAG-VE is to alert WHO if a variant that can cause a more severe disease or lead to large epidemic waves causing an increased burden to the healthcare system is emerging and likely to pose a significant threat.
“At the current moment, there is no epidemiological evidence that these sublineages will be of substantially greater risk compared to other Omicron sublineages,” he said.
He added however that the department, working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and other scientists, continues to monitor all Covid-19 lineages, and appeals to South Africans to continue to be vigilant.
“The known Covid-19 virus variants are still in circulation, and we are not off the hook from the pandemic. Hence people are urged to vaccinate and take booster shots that they qualify for, to enhance their level of immunity,” he said