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COVID-19 may never be totally eradicated: expert

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Staff Reporter

New variants of severe acute respiratory Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) have the potential to influence the size and duration of waves of infection and may prolong the existence of COVID-19, an expert has said. 

Professor Felicity Burt from the University of the Free State (UFS) and the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) says despite the development of vaccines and the technology available to adapt vaccines in the future to address the emergence of new variants, it is extremely unlikely that COVID-19 will ever be eradicated.

According to Burt, the emergence of new variants has illustrated the importance of continually monitoring circulating variants for changes in viral proteins associated with cell binding – or influencing entry of the virus into a cell – and immune responses which would influence vaccine efficacy and reinfections. 

“To date, the only pathogen that has been eradicated globally is the smallpox virus,” says Burt in a recent study. 

“This was achievable because of a highly efficacious vaccine and because smallpox caused a disease that was readily recognisable, enabling rapid isolation of afflicted patients.

“In contrast, a virus such as SARS-CoV-2 that can cause asymptomatic infections in which the person is unknowingly infected and able to shed and transmit the virus is probably impossible to eradicate.”

She says the current vaccines are effective against severe disease, but do not prevent transmission.

An expert on arbovirology in the UFS Division of Virology, Burt believes complete eradication of the virus is unlikely, as the virus will continue to circulate at low levels in the population even if high levels of vaccine coverage are achieved.

She says current vaccines are however able to reduce the severity of the disease until a vaccine that prevents complete transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is available, meaning the development of affordable treatment options remains important. 

Novel therapeutics, such as an antiviral drug that interrupts replication of the virus, or monoclonal antibodies that neutralise the virus, could go a long way towards the treatment of infections. 

“Currently, monoclonal antibody therapy is available in higher-income countries,” Burt points out.

“Monoclonal antibodies mimic our natural antibody response, targeting specific regions of the virus, neutralising the virus and stopping it from entering cells. 

“Monoclonal antibodies have been used to treat other viral infections such as Ebola.

“However, they have significant limitations due to cost, availability and high specificity, meaning that mutations in emerging variants could influence their efficacy.

“They are unlikely to be an affordable option in lower-income countries.”

According to Burt, viruses have a propensity to acquire mutations, or changes, in their genetic make-up during replication and, as expected, this virus has changed during the pandemic and will inevitably continue to mutate.

These mutations, she says, become problematic if they influence the way the virus is transmitted between people, or if the disease profile changes and the virus causes a more severe disease, or if the changes result in a virus that is not recognised by the body’s immune response. 

In other words, the virus is capable of hiding from, or can escape, the immune response that a person has developed as a result of a previous natural infection or from vaccination. 

“If the virus has changed such that an existing immune response does not recognise it, then a person can become re-infected,” the virologist has found.

“Hence, changes in the ability to escape immunity are considered to confer an advantage to the virus.

“Although there are changes in all regions of the viral genes, we are concerned with changes that occur in the gene that codes for the spike protein. 

“This protein is responsible for binding and entry of the virus into cells, hence changes in the spike protein that allow the virus to more readily enter cells are considered to be an advantage to the virus.”

Burt says there is now some evidence suggesting that antibodies produced in response to the Beta variant – the dominant variant during the second wave in South Africa – are less efficient at neutralising the Delta variant of the virus. 

In addition, there is evidence suggesting that the Delta virus can replicate to higher levels in the body, resulting in a higher viral load.

Although the kinetics of each variant are still not completely understood, the combinations of higher viral load and the potential for reinfections to occur will likely contribute towards a larger wave of infection.

“The World Health Organisation and international partners characterise emerging variants as variants of concern (VOC) or variants of interest (VOI),” says Burt.

“Although there are multiple new variants globally, only a small proportion of these meet the definition.

“The Lambda variant, initially recognised in South America, is deemed a VOI.

“This is a level below VOC, indicating that it has mutations that are known or have the potential to affect the characteristics of the virus and that the prevalence is increasing in multiple countries over time. 

“Currently, Lambda is not a concern in South Africa.

“In contrast, a VOC has the same characteristics as a VOI, but, in addition, has one or more of the following: increased transmissibility or is associated with change in disease severity or clinical presentation, or the public health and social measures are less effective against the variant.”

The virologist concludes that although the current vaccines may not prevent mild disease, they have all been shown to reduce the incidence of severe disease and fatalities. 

She says the technology for adapting vaccines is available but if a vaccine has to be adapted, it will take some time for it to be available because this virus is now well-established globally and will continue to evolve over the years.

“Although there is some reduction in vaccine efficacy against the currently circulating variants, there are fortunately high levels of protection against severe disease and hospitalisation in people who have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. In other words, they are fully vaccinated,” says Burt. 

She emphasises that despite reduced effectiveness and potential for vaccine breakthrough, it is still important for people to be vaccinated as it reduces viral load and duration of virus shedding.

Less viral replication means that the virus has less chance to mutate, with less chance of new variants emerging, she says.

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Parts of Free State may not have power for up to three weeks

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PROLONGED BLACKOUT LOOMS . . . Eskom says consumers in some parts of the Free State may not have electricity for up to three weeks

Eskom has warned consumers in the south-eastern Free State that they may not have electricity for up to three weeks due to voltage constraints on the network feeding the Melkspruit Substation.

The power failure resulted in electricity users in Zastron, Rouxville and Smithfield as well as those fed directly by Eskom on the RVZ and RVS 22 kV lines experiencing outages over the past weekend.

Eskom’s spokesperson in the Free State, Stefanie Jansen van Rensburg, said the problem may persist until major work on a line from the Northern Cape is completed.

“The voltage constraint on the network will persist until construction of structures on the Ruigtevallei-Valleydora 132 kV line in the Northern Cape is completed,” said Van Rensburg as she urged consumers to remain patient while the supply challenge is addressed.

“Free State teams are currently assisting to speed up the process. It is however expected that work will take two to three weeks to complete.”

“In the meantime, electricity users are urged to use electricity sparingly, especially during the morning and evening peak hours, to prevent trips,” she added.

South Africa has been experiencing rolling blackouts in recent weeks due to what Eskom has described a “continued shortage of generation capacity”.

On Sunday, the national power utility said in a separate statement it had about 3 028 megawatts on planned maintenance, while another 14 992 megawatts of capacity were unavailable due to breakdowns.

While the loadshedding is meant to ease pressure on the national grid and avoid a total collapse of the system, the practice has reportedly caused damage on some lines when power is switched back on.

Eskom has always said loadshedding is implemented only as a last resort to protect the national grid and promised to limit the implementation of loadshedding to the evening peak in order to limit the impact of the capacity shortages on the public. – Staff Reporter

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Minister shuts down troubled Free State water supplier

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MOVE GAZETTED . . . Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu has disestablished Sedibeng Water

Staff and key assets from the embattled Sedibeng Water Board are set to be transferred to the Bloemwater and Magalies water boards following the gazetting of the move by Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu last week.

The department’s spokesperson, Sputnik Ratau, said in a statement the development is in line with the minister’s commitment to review the country’s water boards to enable them to perform optimally while enhancing the delivery of water to municipalities and ultimately to households.

The decision to disestablish Sedibeng Water – which served Matjhabeng, Masilonyana and Nala local municipalities, among others – means its staff, assets and liabilities will be absorbed by Bloemwater in the Free State and Magalies in Gauteng.

The move, according to Ratau, was initiated by the minister following his working sessions with provincial governments, various water services authorities and water boards regarding issues of governance, financial viability as well as accountability and broader service delivery issues after taking office in August last year.

“The review is based on considerations of financial sustainability, servicing areas that are not currently serviced and is also intended to address institutional confusion caused by having multiple water boards serving the same area,” said Ratau.

“The disestablishment of Sedibeng Water is in accordance with section 28 of the Water Services Act of 1997 which affords Minister Mchunu the authority to disestablish a water board.

“The gazette was published on Friday, 20 May 2022 and will remain open to the public for a period of 40 days.

“Members of the public and all interested parties are invited to make comments in writing on the disestablishment of the board.”

The department said it will ensure there is smooth transition of the disestablishment and that water service provision to communities is not affected.

Based in Bothaville, Sedibeng Water was established to, among others, treat wastewater and supply potable water in a viabile and sustainable manner.

However, in recent years, some of the municipalities served by the water board have struggled over the years to pay on time for the bulk water supplies even though residents have argued that they pay their monthly bills on time.

At the end of March this year, Sedibeng reportedly owed its service providers over R5-billion as it was struggling to secure payment from several municipalities. – Staff Reporter

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Mangaung warns residents to brace for heavy rainfall

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DISRUPTIVE DOWNPOUR LOOMING . . . Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality has warned heavy rainfall is expected to pound the capital

The Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality has warned residents in and around the Free State capital to brace for heavy rainfall that could cause flooding this Friday.

The municipality is urging drivers to take extra caution by reducing speed and switching their headlights on, while pedestrians are being reminded to be careful when crossing the road and to avoid crossing rivers and streams where water is above the ankles.

“Residents of Mangaung Metro, particularly in the former Naledi region, are urged to be cautious on the road and in their homes as the South African Weather Service has issued an impact-based warning . . . for possible disruptive rainfall,” the metro said in a statement.

“This warning is valid for Friday, 20 May 2022 until Saturday, 21 May 2022.”

“Heavy rains are also predicted in Bloemfontein on Friday,” it added.

“Localised flooding can be expected in susceptible low-lying areas, roads, formal/informal settlements and bridges.” – Staff Reporter

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