South Africa is now in lockdown level 1 (from level 3).
FAQ – SARS-CoV-2 (“Coronavirus”) – Original posting 31 January 2020 – Seventeenth update 01 March 2021.
Download a scientific review article by Anelich et al, 2020 on SARS-CoV-2 and Risk to Food Safety
What is the coronavirus?
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large group of viruses that are common in many different species of animals. They cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The common cold is something we are all familiar with – this is often caused by what is termed “common human coronaviruses” of which there are many different strains.
The current virus that was reported on 31 December 2019 for the first time by China, is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. It has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 and it causes Covid-19 (coronavirus disease).
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared this outbreak a pandemic.
How does one contract the illness known as Covid-19?
As yet, the original source of the SARS-CoV-2 is not known, even though it has been speculated that bats and pangolins may be involved; however, this link is inconclusive. It is still believed to be zoonotic though (jumped from animal to human).
The primary modes of transmission of infection are:
- From person-to-person (close contact….touching, shaking hands etc),
- Via droplets spread by coughing and sneezing, which may be aerosolised. This is a particular problem where there is poor ventilation or lack of fresh air entering a room.
One can also become infected from contaminated surfaces (also known as fomites), although this mode of transmission is not believed to be a primary route of transmission. Frequently touched (high-touch) surfaces require more attention.
Transmission can happen at the workplace, in health care centres, hospitals, in a home, on buses, taxis, trains, practically anywhere. Frequently touched surfaces include public handrails, lift buttons, money, shopping trolley handles etc. Wash hands well (for at least 20 seconds) after being out in public. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer gel with at least 60 % alcohol (70% alcohol according to South African regulations and standards) to disinfect hands.
What are the symptoms of infection?
The most common symptoms of infection are:
- Shortness of breath
- New loss of sense of smell (anosmia) or even taste
Loss of smell seems to develop by day 3.
Other symptoms may be body aches, headaches, sore throat, chills, tightness in the chest, nausea and diarrhoea. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia with difficulty breathing, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney and liver failure and even death. However, not everyone experiences all of the symptoms listed.
How long does it take for symptoms to show?
Symptoms of Covid-19 typically show between 2-14 days after infection. This is why people who have come into contact with an infected person should self-isolate and seek medical assistance by calling the national toll free number 0800 029 999 or their doctor for assistance. It is now known that some people will have mild symptoms and not go to the doctor, whilst some people do not show any symptoms and are asymptomatic. The latter may develop symptoms after the 14 day incubation period or may not. They can still spread the virus, however.
Who is most at risk?
Everyone is potentially at risk i.e. there is no zero risk. However, high risk cases remain mainly older people and people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart conditions, high blood pressure, and HIV. Obesity is also a risk factor. Children and babies are less likely to be infected. If infected, children and babies will likely not have any symptoms. Some may experience mild symptoms but, they can still spread the virus to others. In very few cases, children develop an inflammatory condition that can be serious. The population at-risk has not changed, even though there is now a new variant in South Africa that was detected in November 2020, for the first time (see more below).
What is the death rate?
The number of cases and deaths change on a daily basis. It is best to obtain these figures from the World Health Organization. The overall death rate changes but is at the 2-5% mark, which is less than the death rate for the SARS-CoV-1 virus, which caused the outbreak in China in 2003 – that death rate ran at 10% even though far fewer people in total were infected (around 8000 infections with 800 deaths). The MERS virus had far fewer cases but had a 34% death rate. SARS-CoV-2 is far more infectious than SARS-CoV-1 and the virus is on all continents except for Antarctica. What often does not make the headlines, is that the majority of people who contract the virus, recover. South Africa reports daily on recovered patients as well. There are hundreds of thousands of people who will only have mild symptoms. The John Hopkins University tracks infections, deaths and survivals, globally.
What is the situation in South Africa?
On 05 March 2020, the South African National Department of Health announced the first case of Covid-19 in South Africa. Since then, numbers have increased and deaths have unfortunately occurred. On 15 March 2020, the South African President addressed the nation, declaring a national state of disaster, as well as announcing a number of important measures to limit the spread of the virus. On 26 March 2020 at midnight, South Africa went into a very strict lockdown (Level 5) for 21 days until 16 April 2020 to try and limit spread of the infection and to flatten the curve. Level 5 lockdown was extended to end of April. On 01 May 2020, South Africa moved to level 4 of lockdown, which allowed for gradual re-opening of the economy and on 01 June 2020, the country moved to level 3. On 15 August 2020, South Africa moved to level 2 and on 21 September 2020, to level 1. However, on 28 December 2020, SA returned to lockdown level 3, with certain amendments. On 01 February 2021, the President relaxed some aspects of the lockdown due to the country emerging from the peak of the second wave. On 28 February 2021, the President relaxed restrictions even further and the country is now in Lockdown Level 1. Regulations related to this lockdown level are available here.
Is there a new variant in South Africa?
A new variant was identified in South Africa by the KRISP group at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in November 2020. It is known as the 501Y.V2 variant and has a few mutations (genetic changes). The most significant of these mutations are in the structure of the spike protein, which is responsible for the virus’s attachment to the target human cells. This change causes the virus to rotate at 20 degrees, which means it gets deeper into the cells at that angle, which strengthens its affinity to bind to human cells. This results in a 50% higher rate of transmission. Prof Salim Abdool Karim explains it well here.
This variant is therefore causing higher numbers of infections, which we saw recently in the second wave. The new variant also seems to cause more severe illness.
Can one be re-infected by the new variant if one was already infected with the original (pre-existing) virus?
It appears that approximately 4000 people have been re-infected in South Africa. Re-infections may be possible with the new variant considering its significant mutation, explained above. It also appears that the new variant is able to evade antibodies against the original form of the virus or indeed, antibodies activated by certain current vaccines. However, ongoing analyses will yield more data. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) is involved in this research.
How is the virus tested for?
Government institutions such as the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) and private medical laboratories as well as some pharmacies provide testing services. The types of tests differ, with the standard one being the RT-PCR test. It is based on detection of the viral nucleic acid, namely RNA and takes approximately 48 hours for results to be communicated. The second type of test is a rapid test, which is also cheaper, but less accurate. The latter test is more commonly known as the “lateral flow” test and provides results within 15-20 minutes. False negatives can however, occur in both cases. Ampath Laboratories provide a good explanation.
Is there treatment or a vaccine available?
There is no treatment for Covid-19, despite many myths on the internet and social media. Treatment is based on symptoms according to the patient’s clinical condition. Supportive care for infected persons is the route taken. There are numerous trials being conducted to find a cure.
Vaccines have been procured by many countries, mainly in the developed world. These are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as well as Astra-Zeneca (AZ), Johnson & Johnson vaccines and other. Vaccination programmes are underway with Israel, the UAE and the UK being the front-runners. South Africa has participated in a few trials including the Oxford trial, which is based on the AZ vaccine. The AZ vaccine showed promise initially against the pre-existing strains but showed little effectivity against the new SA variant when it came to mild and moderate illness. The SA government has vaccinated approximately 67 000 health workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (which is a single jab). A further batch of J&J doses arrived in the country on 27 Feb 2021. SA has paid deposits for procurement of vaccines via the COVAX system and other sources of vaccines are being sought. The projection is that Phase 2 (elderly and those with co-morbidities) of the vaccination roll-out should start at end April / beginning May 2021.
Can the virus (SARS-CoV-2) be transmitted through food?
There is no credible evidence to suggest that the virus is transmitted through food, food packaging or food ingredients. Anelich Consulting has been very active in this field providing clients with views and important advice based on scientific evidence as well as making several presentations at different events, nationally and internationally. The following resources are available:
- A review article written by Prof Lucia and 3 co-authors called “SARS-CoV-2 and Risk to Food Safety” published by Frontiers on 02 November 2020. It has been welcomed widely, including by the United Nations (FAO).
- Anelich, Lues, Farber, Parreira wrote an article for the Food Safety Magazine discussing food packaging and SARS-CoV-2, based on risk – published in December 2020.
- Prof Lucia presented a paper on this same topic at the Dubai Food Safety Conference on 30 November 2020. The recording can be viewed at the top- right of this page.
- Prof Lucia participated in a discussion forum on “Frozen Food and the Threat of SARS-CoV-2” hosted by Affidia Journal. The recording of the entire event can be viewed at the top-right of this page.
- Anelich, Lues, Farber and Parreira wrote an article for The Conversation Africa discussing coronavirus and food safety – published on 15 February 2021.
Good personal behaviour around food must be practiced by everyone, even at home, at all times, regardless of the pandemic i.e. not sneezing or coughing over food, washing hands with soap for the required 20 seconds and more….these are practices that the food industry has been implementing for decades under “normal” circumstances.
Can this Coronavirus live on surfaces?
Viruses cannot grow or multiply outside their host but in many cases, they can survive on surfaces for different periods of time depending on temperature, humidity, the type of surface and other factors. Several research papers have been published showing variable results in length of time and conditions under which the virus survives on different surfaces. It must be emphasised though, that experiments are conducted in controlled environments (laboratories), which do not necessarily reflect what occurs in practice. Furthermore, different concentrations of the virus are used in each experiment, making it difficult to compare results between publications. It is believed that the very high loads used for these experiments may not reflect real-life situations i.e. where the viral load is far lower (outside of hospital care where one would expect the virus to be present at high concentrations).
How can I protect myself?
Below is a list of measures (list is not exhaustive) one can take to prevent contracting or spreading the virus to others.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue or one’s sleeve.
- Do not hug, kiss, shake hands with other people; fist, elbow, foot bumps are preferable.
- Throw any used tissues into the bin immediately and wash hands (see next point).
- Wash hands well with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (as has always been touted in the food industry). Do this regularly, but especially after getting home from public areas and before preparing/eating food and after using tissues to blow one’s nose or to cough into (see “Safe Grocery Shopping” on this website).
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Hand sanitizer must contain at least 60% alcohol (70% alcohol in South Africa) to be effective. Note: If hands are exceptionally dirty or greasy, hand sanitizer alone will not work. Hands need to be washed with soap and water first and then sanitized, if needed.
- Avoid contact with people who are showing flu-like symptoms, in particular fever and coughing – keep at least a distance of 1.5 metres (preferably 2 metres) from another person.
- Wear masks in public (required by law in South Africa); makes sure it covers BOTH your mouth AND nose!
- Do not touch your face, eyes, nose, mouth with unwashed hands.
In summary, four important behaviours go a very long way to protect one from contracting or spreading the virus:
- Practice proper hand hygiene as explained above.
- Keep a social distance of at least 1.5 metres, preferably 2 metres.
- Wear a mask in public that covers BOTH the mouth AND nose.
- Avoid crowds and large numbers of people, especially in a closed environment. These can become super-spreader events.
It is vital that masks do not create a false sense of security. Wearing masks is an additional measure in the fight against transmission of the virus, not a replacement for hand washing and social distancing. The World Health Organization has provided advice on masks and is well worth reading.
Are there any disinfectants that work against SARS-CoV-2?
For the food industry, several agencies provide lists of disinfectants that are effective against SARS-CoV-2:
- Environmental Protection Agency – list “N”;
- European Union;
- Health Canada;
- NRCS lists what is registered for use in South Africa.
For home use:
- Household bleach at 0.1% concentration for 1 minute contact time (this can be increased to 0.5% concentration);
- Hydrogen peroxide at 0.5% concentration for 1 minute contact time;
- 70% alcohol for 1 minute contact time.
NOTE: This virus IS controllable, provided that we all work together and take responsibility for our actions. Follow hygienic behaviour, stay away from large gatherings of people and arm yourselves with the right information.
Witwatersrand University, South Africa, Covid 19 vaccine trials
South African Medical Research Council
ANSES (French Authorities)
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention USA
Food and Drug Administration USA
Food Standards Agency UK
Public Health Agency of Canada