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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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Municipal manager facing tender fraud charges granted bail

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THE ACCUSED . . . Maluti-a-Phofung municipal manager Futhuli Patrick Mothamaha is out on bail

Maluti-a-Phofung municipal manager Futhuli Patrick Mothamaha, 49, was on Friday released on a bail of R500 000 by the Phuthaditjhaba Magistrates Court after he was arrested by The Hawks for fraud, corruption and Contravention of the Municipal Finance Management Act.

The state alleges that he allegedly awarded a contract of R58 million to Kill Crime Security Company in 2020 without following proper procurement processes.

National Prosecuting Authority regional spokesperson Phaladi Shuping said Mothamaha allegedly signed a service level agreement on May 19, 2020, appointing the company to render security services to the municipality for a period of three months without following procurement processes.

“The municipality continued to pay Kill Crime Security Company for almost two years without a contract,” said Shuping.

He said Mothamaha was supposed to appear with his co-accused, father and daughter who are the owners of Kill Crime Security, Thabiso, 55, and Dimakatso Sekhosana, 29, on Monday after they were instructed by The Hawks to hand themselves over on Sunday, but he failed to do so.

The Sekhosanas appeared on Monday facing similar charges and were released on bail of R150 000 each.

Part of Mothamaha’s bail conditions are that he must not enter the offices of the municipality, not interfere with the investigations nor intimidate witnesses.

The case was postponed to September 30 for further investigations. – Staff Reporter

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Six nabbed for alleged theft of network batteries

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NABBED . . .  The six men believed to have stolen network batteries and damaged critical infrastructure

 Six men were due to appear in the Marquard Magistrates Court on Friday after being found in possession of eight network batteries believed to have been stolen.

Police spokesperson for the eastern Free State, Warrant Officer Mmako Mophiring, said the suspects were arrested following a joint effort by members of the SA Police Service, private security and farmers.

He said police received information from the community at about 3am last Wednesday saying some unknown men were digging up network boxes and cutting copper inside a manhole.

“The police activated and mobilised other members and arrested the first suspect who is a foreign national near a filling station while sitting inside a vehicle,” said Mophiring.

The man was arrested for possession of suspected stolen property after eight network power box batteries were found in his possession and failed to properly account for them.

While pursuing the matter with the help of some farmers, the police received information at about 8am that some five men were trying to hitch-hike near a certain farm to Senekal.

“The team quickly responded and arrested the three suspects who were successfully linked to the initially arrested suspect. Two other suspects managed to escape but were chased and arrested near a farm going to Senekal. Four of the six suspects are Illegal immigrants and two are South Africans,” he explained.

The six are aged between 23 and 30 years of age.

They are facing charges of contravening the Immigration Act, possession of suspected stolen property and damage of infrastructure.

Provincial Police Commissioner Lieutenant General Baile Motswenyane applauded the community and the team for the prompt arrests and urged them to “continue working together to fight crime”.

Meanwhile, three suspected armed robbers were sniffed out of their hideout in Thaba Nchu near Serwalo on Thursday morning following a petrol station robbery.

Police spokesperson in Mangaung, Sergeant Mahlomola Kareli, said in a separate statement four armed robbers arrived at the petrol garage just after midnight on Wednesday and threatened the security guard with a firearm before tying him up with wire and fleeing the scene with a undisclosed amount of cash and cans of motor vehicle oil.

The suspects demanded keys from the guard and gained access to the back offices.

And while others were busy helping themselves to the oil cans and cigarettes, others were busy grinding the safe to access the money inside.

The four then left the security guard with his hands and feet tightly fastened with a wire.

The guard was only rescued by staff starting duty at 5am.

The matter was reported to the police and a case of armed robbery was opened at Thaba Nchu Police Station and a manhunt was launched.

Luck ran out for three of the suspects aged between 38 and 40 after they were traced and found near Serwalo in Thaba Nchu at about 2am on Thursday and were arrested.

They were found with an undisclosed amount of money suspected to have been stolen during the robbery.

One suspect remains at large.

The three were due to appear in the Thaba Nchu Magistrates Court on Friday for business robbery. – Staff Reporter

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Garden scissor attacker nabbed

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THE CRIME TOOL . . . A 64-year-old man allegedly used this garden scissor to attack a man and his family

A 64-year-old man has been arrested after stabbing one person in the stomach with a broken garden scissor and injuring the victim’s family while holding them hostage.

Police say they were called to a place in Verkeerdevlei on Wednesday evening where a person had been stabbed in the stomach.

Upon arrival, they found a 53-year-old man who had been stabbed in the stomach with the broken scissor.

The suspect had already fled the scene.

“The victim was taken to hospital for medical treatment,” said Captain Stephen Thakeng in a brief statement.

Further investigations revealed that the same suspect went to the house of the victim’s 36-year-old daughter house where he held her and her two children – aged 13 and 15 – hostage.

“Tactical Response Team (TRT) members from Park Road were activated at about 21:30 and it was realised that the suspect was holding (the family) hostage in a three-roomed shack,” said Thakeng.

“The TRT members gained entry into the shack and rescued the three from the suspect.

“The three victims were also stabbed with the same half part of the big scissor.”

The suspect is facing a charge of attempted murder and three counts of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

He will appear in the Verkeerdevlei Magistrates Court soon.

THE CRIME TOOL . . . A 64-year-old man allegedly used this garden scissor to attack a man and his family

Meanwhile, a man believed to be terrorising tuckshop owners around Bothaville was arrested on Wednesday following a tip-off by community members.

Police say they received information about a man with a firearm and who might be involved in robberies of tuck shops of foreign nationals at about 16:30.

The suspect’s house in Kgotsong was identified and members of Bothaville Crime Prevention approached it and asked for permission to search the place.

They were granted permission and a 9mm pistol was found and a 27-year-old man from Potchefstroom was arrested for possession of an unlicensed firearm.

The suspect will appear in the Bothaville Magistrates Court soon. – Staff Reporter

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