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South Africa confirms the seventh case of coronavirus

All seven COVID-19 cases are from a group who recently returned from a ski trip in Italy.  

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed South Africa’s seventh case of the new coronavirus on March 9. This followed earlier confirmed cases — the wife of the 38-year-old man from Hilton, Kwazulu-Natal, who was announced as the country’s first case on March 5. Another case, announced on March 8, is a 39-year-old woman from Gauteng.

All seventh cases were among a group of 10 people who recently returned from an Italian ski trip. Italy has become the epicentre of the epidemic in Europe. The World Health Organisation has dubbed the new virus the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus causes coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

According to the health department nine of the 10 people returned to South Africa and all of them have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 — the department is still waiting for six of the group members’ results and expect them within the next 48 hours.

The children of the husband and wife who tested positive, were tested and their results have come out negative. “However, as part of taking extra precautions, these children will remain in self quarantine until their parents have tested negative. At that point, they will also be tested to ensure that they remain negative,” the ministry of health said in a press release issued this morning.

Until their parents test negative, the children will be regarded as potentially infected and not attend school, the ministry said. “This is in an effort to curb the risk of spread to other children and teachers.”

Although there is inconclusive evidence on the virus’s ability to survive outside a person’s body in hot weather, the national health department’s coronavirus infection prevention and control programme head, Shaheen Mehtar, believes South Africa’s summer might help to slow down the spread of the new virus. Mehtar also sits on the WHO coronavirus expert group.

“The virus is very sensitive to heat,” she explains, “so [our current] temperatures are basically too high for the virus.” 

She says: “Even if one or two people get infected the spread of it is not going to be very good because the virus doesn’t like heat.”

But scientists disagree about if the weather will play a role in transmission. 

Oxford University professor of global health Trudie Lang was adamant that it was too soon to know for sure what role heat plays in the outbreak. “We absolutely don’t know that,” she told New Scientist magazine in February.

However, at least some researchers, including those at the University City of Hong Kong are already assuming that warm weather will curb the new coronavirus in mathematical modelling predicting the virus’ future spread in China, papers currently in print show.

South Africa didn’t see any cases during previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that happened during the country’s summer. 

“When we have our winter, then [SARS-CoV-2] might come to us but at the moment I don’t think it’s going to come here,” Mehtar says.

Currently, the WHO recommends that people who have been in contact with a confirmed case quarantine themselves at home for 14 days to minimise the risk to the public. Those coming from nations with epidemics such as Italy that have imposed restrictions on movement should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. 

No quarantine is yet recommended for people who have simply returned from a country reporting a handful of cases. 

Soon, almost 200 South Africans from the Chinese city of Wuhan, considered the epicentre of the epidemic, will arrive in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week. One hundred and eighty-four South Africans will be flown home from Wuhan, according to a statement by the interministerial task team, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure.

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South Africans returning home from Wuhan will be quarantined for 21 days at what many media outlets have reported will be a military base outside Bloemfontein. However, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure said in a statement Wednesday that no venue had been confirmed. Based on Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s previous remarks, the repatriation is expected to happen in the coming week.

Many South Africans have taken to social media to wonder whether this homecoming will bring with it another case of the virus — and if the country is prepared to contain any potential spread of SARS-CoV-2.

But South Africa’s quarantine process will err on the side of caution — further diminishing the risk of a new case among the group.

The country’s 21-day quarantine stretches far beyond that and those arriving from China have shown no symptoms of the virus. Plus, they’ve already spent about six weeks under quarantine in China where they have been repeatedly tested for COVID-19, explains Mehtar. 

According to Cohen, the decision to quarantine the Wuhan contingent as a group made logistical sense given that so many people were returning together from a high-risk area. 

No South African who tests positive for the new coronavirus prior to getting on the plane returning to South Africa will be allowed to return with the group, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told journalists at a 1 March briefing. Instead, they’ll be referred to the Chinese health system.

Mehtar stressed that South Africans should not panic about the new coronavirus. “I am not concerned about South Africa just at the moment.”

People with questions about the new coronavirus can call the government’s public 24-hour hotline 0800 029 999. People who have travelled to countries with reported cases and are experiencing trouble breathing and have had at least one of these symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath, should also phone the National Institute for Communicable Diseases hotline before seeing a doctor.

Additional reporting by Laura López González and Mia Malan.

[6 March 2020 12:57pm This story was updated to reflect the latest guidance from the national health department, which has asked that people who believe they may have symptoms of the virus call the NICD first before seeing a medical provider.]

[6 March 16:35pm This story was updated to include information that the evidence on the impact of heat on COVID-19’s ability to survive, is inconclusive.]

[7 March 13:58pm This story was updated to include the announcement of SA’s second COVID-19 case, which was made on Saturday, 7 March]

[8 March 12:10pm This story was updated to include the announcement of SA’s third COVID-19 case, which was made on Sunday, 8 March]

[9 March 7:58pm This story was updated to include the announcement of SA’s seventh COVID-19 case, which was made on Monday, 9 March]

[10 March 2020 5pm: This story was updated to reflect that the new coronavirus is called the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, while the illness it causes is referred to as COVID-19]

Aisha Abdool Karim was a senior health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2020 to 2022.