Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, says for now, government will not impose any internal restrictions as a result of the emergence of a newly found sub-variant of the COVID-19 virus.
The first instance of the XBB.1.5 sub-variant was detected in South Africa in December and reported earlier this month.
Phaahla explained that XBB.1.5 is a sub-variant of the globally dominant Omicron variant which presents less severe illness.
“We have consulted our Ministerial Advisory Committees and also the World Health Organisation … and in both cases the advice that we have received is that there is no need to impose any travel restrictions on any country, including the People’s Republic of China and that we also do not need to re-impose any restrictions internally in our country.
“The XBB.1.5 has been detected more in the [United States of America] where its prevalence is rated at about 6.8% of the circulating sub-variants. While the various sub-variants have shown different levels of transmissibility, there has thus been no marked change in severity of illness,” he said.
The Minister added that vaccinations have put South Africa in a strong position to fight COVID-19 infections and reported no major effects on the healthcare system since the detection of the variant.
“We believe that the fact that the dominant variant of concern in China and in the world remains the Omicron and that the immunity of South Africans from vaccination and natural immunity is still very strong, puts us in a better position and in less risk.
“[That] is why we have not seen up to this stage any major changes in our epidemiology in terms of the rates of infections, also in terms of admissions to hospitals and even the rate of fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
The Minister said although no major restrictions will be imposed, the Health Ministry will be taking precautionary measures including:
Encouraging increased testing on people who experience the known COVID-19 symptoms
Encouraging those experiencing symptoms to go to health facilities
Advising healthcare practitioners to order antigen or PCR tests to be done on symptomatic persons
Every positive COVID-19 test to be sent to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) for genomic sequencing
Increasing surveillance and waste water testing by the NICD, including that of aircrafts coming from countries with a high COVID-19 burden
Reinvigorating the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign
The measures were presented to the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and have been approved.
Phaahla emphasised that getting the jab remains the best way to build up immunity against COVID-19.
“Our vaccination ministerial advisory committee will soon make adjustments to qualification for booster [vaccination] per age and also the timelines between the boosters. The remake is looking at including in the boosters not only the people over 50 but also all adults over 18 years of age,” he said.
“Vaccination remains the bedrock to protect against any variant or sub-variant of COVID-19 and not travel restrictions or any new restrictions at this stage,” he said.