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Infectious Diseases

09 May 2020

Coronavirus morning update: Concerns over lab backlogs, Covid-19 parole - only certain inmates eligible

Your latest coronavirus news: Western Cape healthcare workers have reported waiting up to 10 days for Covid-19 test results - and sources in Gauteng say they are not alone; and only offenders who committed petty crimes will be eligible to be included in the 19 000 inmates who will be released on parole to combat the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA

Cases update: 

The latest number of confirmed cases is 8 895.

According to the latest update, 178 deaths have been recorded in the country.

So far, 307 752 tests have been conducted, with nearly 15 600 new tests.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases of coronavirus in SA

Latest news:

Only offenders who committed petty crimes will be eligible to be included in the 19 000 inmates who will be released on parole to combat the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Correctional Services Commissioner Arthur Fraser briefed the media on Friday on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that he had authorised the release of low-risk inmates who have already served their minimum sentence, or who would approach this period in the next five years.

Lamola said that approximately 19 000 inmates across the country would benefit from this decision, provided they met requirements of the parole board.

"They will be considered on a case-by-case basis and those who qualify will be placed on parole after all the due processes including Victim Offender Dialogues, have accordingly unfolded," Lamola said.

The only inmates that are eligible for release are those who were convicted and imprisoned for petty crimes. Fraser described it as crimes of need.

These types of crimes include shoplifting, theft and trespassing.

READ MORE | Covid-19 in prisons: Only inmates convicted of petty crimes will go free, says Lamola

Delays in results have left many fearing infected patients, who should otherwise be self-quarantining, could unwittingly be exposing others to the virus.

"The delay is not only being experienced in the Western Cape," says provincial health department spokesperson Nomawethu Sbukwana.

"As the Western Cape - and indeed other provinces - ramp up testing, [the National Health Laboratory Services] are finding it challenging to keep up and process these tests, resulting in a nationwide backlog in the results."

The Western Cape has become the epicentre of South Africa's outbreak of the coronavirus, known as SARS-Cov-2.

Sbukwana said the department had contacted the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) to try to ramp up the testing capacity in the province.

READ MORE | National Covid-19 testing backlog means patients may wait up to 10 days for results

The DA has demanded the minutes of all discussions held by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), including the decision to continue the ban on tobacco products.

The party's interim leader, John Steenhuisen, said the DA had filed an application in terms of the Promotion to Access to Information (PAIA) Act to get access to the records that have so far been described as classified.

He railed against the continuation of the "destructive lockdown" in its current form, which turned South Africans into "subjects of an authoritarian state". 

Steenhuisen was speaking on Friday in an online "announcement of national importance".

He said when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa would be placed under lockdown six weeks ago, it was the correct decision.

It was done to give South Africa time to prepare for its response to the pandemic, the DA leader added.

READ MORE | End lockdown now, or South Africans will end it for you - Steenhuisen to Ramaphosa

South Africa’s scaling up of Covid-19 testing in recent weeks appears to have resulted in severe capacity constraints at public sector laboratories, with doctors reporting that it is often taking a week or longer to get results.

“The current turnaround time for COVID-19 tests in Gauteng is around 7 days for outpatients and 3-4 days for in-patients,” says Dr Tom Boyles, an Infectious Diseases specialist at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. He says that colleagues from the Eastern and Western Cape have reported similar delays.

A doctor who works at an emergency unit in a public sector hospital in Johannesburg confirmed to Spotlight that they are waiting seven days for Covid-19 test results. The doctor who asked not to be identified, says that the situation is very frustrating for clinicians.

In some of the worst cases, tests sent from their hospital were lost and no results were provided as long as three weeks after initial testing.The doctor says that testing delays are contributing to wards filling up, since they are not getting the results that would give the all-clear for patients to be discharged.

The doctor also suggested that the testing backlog may explain why the official count of confirmed cases in Gauteng is not rising more quickly at the moment. “I think it’s simply because we are not testing enough,” the doctor said.

READ MORE | Covid-19: Doctors concerned about severe testing delays

A few dozen people wearing homemade and medical masks sit waiting for taxis as drivers spray hand sanitiser on commuters and tell them where inside of the ubiquitous South African Toyota Quantum minibus taxis they may sit to keep the appropriate distance. 

The scene on this Friday morning is eerily quiet for Bosman taxi rank, usually one of Pretoria’s busiest and loudest spots. “The mood is very somber”, says Macdonald Makata, public relations officer of the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) in Tshwane.

Only about a fifth of the rank is operating, with vehicles filled to a maximum of 70%, sanitised regularly, and deep cleaned twice a week. All commuters are meant to wear masks, although only about half do, says Charles, who has been a taxi driver for about five years.

“It’s very difficult that(sic) but we have to follow,” he says of the regulations. Makata agrees that while the health measures are important, they are not easy to implement, since some commuters do not take them seriously and it is having a great financial impact on the industry. “In a way it is helping to flatten the curve,” he says, “but pocket-wise it is not helpful at all.”

READ MORE | Covid-19: What should public transport look like?

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE WORLD 

Cases update:

For the latest global data, follow this interactive map from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Late on Friday night, positive cases worldwide were more than 3.9 million, while deaths were almost 274 000.

The United States had the most cases in the world - more than 1.28 million , as well as the most deaths - close to 77 000.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases worldwide

Latest news:

A study performed in New York hospitals found no evidence of either harm or benefit from giving the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to severely ill coronavirus patients.

"The risk of intubation or death was not significantly higher or lower among patients who received hydroxychloroquine than among those who did not," the authors of the study said.

They said the study, published on Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine, "should not be taken to rule out either benefit or harm of hydroxychloroquine treatment."

"However, our findings do not support the use of hydroxychloroquine at present, outside randomised clinical trials testing its efficacy," they said.

US President Donald Trump has frequently touted the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus patients.

READ MORE | No apparent harm or benefit from hydroxychloroquine - study

China said on Friday it supports a World Health Organisation-led review into the global response to the coronavirus outbreak, but only "after the pandemic is over".

The comments from foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying came as China faces increasing global pressure to allow an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

The review should be conducted in an "open, transparent and inclusive manner" under the leadership of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Hua said at a press briefing.

She added that it should be at an "appropriate time after the pandemic is over".

But Hua did not say the review should probe the origins of the virus, despite growing calls led by the US and Australia for an international inquiry into the issue, which has become a key flashpoint in deteriorating tensions between Washington and Beijing.

READ MORE | China supports WHO-led review of global pandemic response

LATEST RESEARCH

We can’t help liking llamas with their fluffy faces and spindly legs.

But it seems that the llama has now become significant for a particular reason – its blood contains an antibody that could potentially neutralise SARS-CoV-2.

A new study published in the journal Cell on Tuesday 5 May 2020 stated that these antibodies can help neutralise the novel coronavirus, known for causing Covid-19. 

This comes from research of four years ago. The international research team found that the antibodies from a then nine-month-old llama named Winter could neutralise both SARS-CoV-1 and Mers-Cov over a period of six weeks.

Both these coronaviruses were known for causing outbreaks in 2003 and 2012. Now, SARS-CoV-2 is sweeping across the globe with dire consequences.

READ MORE | How a llama named Winter could help fight Covid-19

With the Covid-19 pandemic placing unprecedented demands on hospitals around the world, health authorities worry about an insufficient supply of ventilators, beds and staff to help those infected.

Countries experiencing a shortage of these include South Sudan, Somalia and Venezuela. And to manage this crisis and establish hospital readiness in South Africa, Trixta, a collaborative low-code platform for business minds and software developers, have launched ReportCovidCase.com – a web app that was built in just 72 hours, and gives hospitals an indicator of how many cases they will have in the near future.

This initiative came after the company was approached by a private GP helping out at a well-known Cape Town hospital, expressing concerns about the lack of information about Covid-19 cases reaching hospitals. 

This prevents healthcare workers from knowing how many ventilators, beds and staff are required.

READ MORE | Local company builds Covid-19 hospital tracking solution in 72 hours

As the current number of Covid-19 cases keeps rising across the globe, researchers aren’t only concerned about finding a vaccine or effective treatment – they also want to track the virus to find out how it spreads, mutates and adapts over time.

A team from Arizona State University (ASU) lead by Efrim Lim, assistant professor at ASU's Biodesign Institute, traced the trail of the virus across the world by using advanced technology that can decode the entire genetic code of SARS-CoV-2.

Their research was announced in a news release and published in the Journal of Virology.

What is genome sequencing and why is it important?

We’ve been hearing the term “genome sequencing” frequently in coronavirus-related content, but it’s often hard to understand, especially if you are not an expert in epidemiology.

Genome sequencing is the process of “figuring out” the exact order of DNA nucleotides in a virus, almost like letters in a sentence, but without punctuation and capitals.

READ MORE | Research team finds new, unique mutation in coronavirus

HEALTH TIPS (as recommended by the NICD and WHO)

• Maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing

• Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus

• Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.

READ MORE: Coronavirus 101 

Image credit: Getty Images