Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: AFP/PHILL MAGAKOE
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: AFP/PHILL MAGAKOE

There are early indications that the Covid-19 virus may be weakening, the recently appointed chair of the new ministerial advisory committee on coronavirus vaccine development, Prof Barry Schoub, says.

This new committee was part of a “reconfigured” ministerial advisory committee, according to the health department. News24, however, reported that the original committee had effectively been disbanded.

Schoub was appointed to head the new committee as health minister Zweli Mkhize felt it was necessary because of the changing pattern of the pandemic, with the new one focusing on the international development of a vaccine and SA’s access to it.

There is concern about the equitable and fair access to Covid-19 vaccines by all countries once they have been developed and approved for use.

Schoub, an internationally renowned virologist and vaccine expert who advises the World Health Organisation on polio, measles, the respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, said in a department of health podcast on Monday that while there was as yet no hard evidence to demonstrate it, there were indications that the Covid-19 virus may be weakening in terms of its virulence, though this remained speculative at this stage.

“It appears that in the latter part of the epidemic on the African continent the severity of the disease appears to be less. This may be due to the age spectrum, for example, in the developing world but there may be indications that the virus may be weakening. There are also some genetic markers in the genome of the virus that may indicate that the virus is weakening in its virulence but is becoming more transmissible.

“In fact, viruses, generally speaking, do tend to reduce their virulence and increase their transmissibility. This may be happening with Covid-19 but it is very early to tell. There is no hard evidence for it. It is speculation at the moment.”

Eventually, the Covid-19 virus could become like the other four coronaviruses, which for a long time have been entrenched in the human population and cause the common cold and mild gastroenteritis.

The professor said that environmental conditions did not seem to be a factor in the spread of Covid-19, which has broken out invevery hot places such as the southern US while its transmission has not been accelerated in low humidity, low temperature climates such as in the highveld winter. However, eventually it could become seasonal as it was respiratory-spread.

Schoub noted that in many countries the second wave of the pandemic had been worse than the first and also expressed support for the surveillance of sewage water and waste water to test for the existence of Covid-19. This was already being done in other countries and was being done in SA for polio.

“This would give us a very good surveillance tool for the build-up of the virus because you survey a large population at the same time. It has a major advantage over randomly selecting individuals for surveillance and would be a very valuable surveillance tool to supplement all the other surveillance tools,” Schoub said.

He stressed the importance of maintaining nonpharmaceutical interventions to stop the transmission of the virus including wearing masks, sanitising hands and social distancing. Those were the only measures available to prevent transmission until a vaccine became available.

SA’s move to level 1 of the risk-adjusted strategy, which involved opening up the economy and allowing social interaction while continuing with nonpharmaceutical interventions and protecting high-risk people — the aged and those with co-morbidities — was very much how Sweden had managed the pandemic, Schoub said.

CORRECTION: September 28

This story had initially said that Mkhize had disbanded the original ministerial advisory committee. It has since been amended to reflect that the department of health says the  committee was reconfigured.


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