S. African variant more contagious, not more deadly

A new variant of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa is more contagious than earlier versions, experts said on Tuesday, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly.

The new variant is 50 percent more contagious, said epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of the South African health ministry's scientific committee from Johannesburg.

"There is no evidence the new COVID variant is more severe than the original variant," he added.

The experts drew their conclusions about the variant—now the dominant strain in South Africa—from an analysis of data collected from the main infection clusters across the country.

With more than 1.3 million people infected, South Africa has recorded more cases than any other country on the continent and has also suffered more deaths, with 37,105 registered.

The second wave of the virus has stretched South Africa's health system to its limits.

Dr Waasila Jassat, another member of the expert panel, said that even though admissions were up, the death rate from the virus in hospitals had not changed from the first wave of the virus.

It was the discovery by South African experts of the new variant—known as 510Y.V2—that convinced the authorities to introduce new restrictions in December to slow its spread.

"The world has underestimated this virus," said another panel member, virologist Professor Alex Sigal, adding that it was evolving and adapting to humans.

This developed as Norway said Monday no link had been established between Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine and post-vaccination deaths in the country, but recommended doctors consider the overall health of the frailest before giving them the jab.

Since the start of Norway's vaccination campaign at the end of December, the country has registered 33 deaths among elderly people who have received their first dose, according to public health authorities.

Of the 13 cases analysed in detail so far, "they are people of advanced age, are frail and have serious illnesses, all of them," the director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health Camilla Stoltenberg told reporters.

"When it comes to causes there hasn't been any analysis done yet," she added.

"It is important to remember that on average about 45 people die every day at nursing homes in Norway, so it's not given that this represents any excess mortality or that they are related to the vaccines," Stoltenberg said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration is eyeing an advisory on the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine following the deaths in Norway.

The Philippines earlier granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer, which will remain but there might be a "revision and advisory" against its use on "very old and very frail" individuals, FDA director general Eric Domingo told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo. 

"It seems what happened in Norway was that people of advanced age and those who were very frail were vaccinated. Some were terminally ill. They were in a nursing home,” he said.

Norway has stressed that doctors should individually consider whether patients who are frail or terminally ill should receive the vaccine, as is also recommended in some other countries.

"It's not impossible that some of those who have gotten the vaccine are so frail that maybe you should have reconsidered and not given them the vaccine, because they are so sick that they might have become worse from the normal side effects as the body reacts and builds up immunity," Stoltenberg said.

The Norwegian Medicines Agency said last week that normal side effects from messenger RNA vaccines, such as fever and nausea, "may have contributed to a fatal outcome in some frail patients."

A number of countries, including Norway's neighbors Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, have reported post-vaccination deaths but no direct links to the vaccine have been established.

Pfizer and BioNTech told AFP on Monday they were "working with the Norwegian Medicines Agency to gather all the relevant information".

They recalled that Norway's vaccination campaign started with the elderly living in care homes, "most of whom are very elderly with underlying medical conditions and some of which are terminally ill."

Topics: South Africa , COVID-19 , Salim Abdool Karim , Pfizer , BioNTech , Norwegian Medicines Agency , Eric Domingo
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