Johannesburg: South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said that four cases of the Indian variant of coronavirus have been detected in the country, but there was no cause for panic as all such cases were quarantined.

“The four cases of B.1.617.2 (Indian variant of coronavirus) have been detected in Gauteng (2) and KwaZulu-Natal (2) and all have a history of a recent arrival from India. All cases have been isolated and managed according to the national COVID-19 case management guidelines and contact tracing has been performed to limit the spread of this variant,” Mkhize said in a statement on Saturday.

The minister’s statement was released amid growing concerns in the last fortnight about the Indian variant spreading after the crew of two ships travelling between the two countries tested positive for the virus.

“We reiterate that there is no need for panic, as the fundamentals of the public health response (testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine) have not changed,” Mkhize said.

“It is important to emphasise that variants can develop at any time in any country so they do not have to be imported. The world is still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, with surges in one territory bound to spill over into other territories.

“We are all deeply concerned about the threat of ‘variants of concern’ and these reports demonstrate that the issue is complicated,” the minister said.

Mkhize said travel restrictions will need to be balanced against the scientific realities in order to protect the economy.

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“These findings are urgently being processed by the government and announcements pertaining to travel regulations will be made after all appropriate consultations have been undertaken by the Cabinet,” he said.

Mkhize did not specify if any of the four Indian variant cases were among the crew of the ships which recently returned from India.

One of the ships has been docked in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. The other ship has been docked in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), where police are investigating possible charges against the Ship Captain for falsely declaring that there were no ill crew onboard.

Eleven cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the UK, have also been identified in South Africa.

“The B.1.1.7 (strain) has been detected in community samples and this, therefore, suggests that community transmission of B.1.1.7 has already set in,” Mkhize said.

“As the epidemic progresses, the detection of new variants is inevitable. The work of genomic surveillance assists us to detect the variants and understand their behaviour and to refine vaccines so they remain effective,” he said.

The B.1.351 strain, which was first detected in South Africa, has been found in a traveller from Bangladesh.

“There are a number of other samples from cases with a history of recent travel into South Africa that is currently being sequenced and results are expected over the next few days,” Mkhize concluded.

The coronavirus has so far killed 54,687 people in South Africa, along with over 1.59 million confirmed cases, according to John Hopkins University.

The Indian variant is believed to be largely behind the current surge in infections in India, which is experience a deadly second wave of the pandemic.

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