President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Sunday, 28 November 2021, to assess developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, including scientific updates on the new Covid-19 variant detected in Botswana and South Africa.
The Presidency said the meeting would see scientific evidence and submissions by different economic and social sectors to help inform executive decision-making regarding measures to control the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
“Government works together closely with social partners to ensure that a balance is maintained between protecting and saving lives, and enabling people to earn a living and making it possible for the broader economy to recover and grow,” the Presidency said.
It also said that the National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ detection of the variant demonstrated South Africa’s “constant vigilance and scientific capability” in managing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Presidency said it would announce the outcome of the NCCC discussions, and further consultations would be communicated in the coming days.
Typically, these NCCC meetings precede an announcement by the president regarding adjustments to Covid-19 lockdown measures.
South Africa has been on lockdown alert level 1 since the beginning of October, with the least severe restrictions. That followed a sharp drop in Covid-19 case numbers after a protracted third wave of infections.
However, government approved a massive increase in the number of people allowed at gatherings during the political campaigning period ahead of the 1 November elections.
Indoor gatherings were increased from a maximum of 200 to 750 people, while outdoor gatherings increased from a maximum of 500 to 2,000 people.
The move was met with harsh criticism from experts, who said that permitting such large gatherings steered South Africa towards another hard lockdown during December.
As expected, new Covid-19 cases surged in recent days, with Gauteng seeing the most significant increase. Scientists traced the surge in cases to university students in the Tshwane municipal area.
Whether the new variant could be behind the surge has not yet been determined, although its prevalence in recent cases in the province is noteworthy.
The newly identified variant, designated B.1.1.529 and a Variant Under Monitoring by the World Health Organisation (WHO), was first made public by UK virologist Tom Peacock in a series of tweets earlier this week.
Peacock said the variant had been identified in three positive Covid-19 cases in Botswana, six in South Africa, and one in Hong Kong. The latter had recently returned from a trip to South Africa.
In a media conference on Thursday, the health department confirmed that the variant was in South Africa and had been detected in numerous cases in Gauteng.
Scientists are concerned that the high number of mutations in the spike protein of the virus include changes that could make it more transmissible.
In addition, some of the mutations could potentially allow it to escape antibodies from vaccines and natural resistance due to infection.
The WHO is meeting on Friday to designate the variant with a Greek name, like other Variants of Concern.
If it follows the current naming convention, the new variant is expected to be called “Nu”, the name of the next available letter in the Greek alphabet.