AP Interview: South Africa to know true virus toll in weeks

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FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2020 file photo, customers have their nails done near the Baragwanath taxi rank in Soweto, South Africa. The country's success in bringing its first wave of COVID-19 under control has allowed it to almost fully reopen the economy, while monitoring for signs of a second surge, says the government's chief medical advisor. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa should know its true toll from the coronavirus pandemic within a few weeks, the government’s chief medical adviser says, as the country prepares to almost fully reopen its economy after bringing the first surge in cases under control.

The official death toll from COVID-19 is more than 15,700 but the real number is likely more than 30,000 when deaths not recorded at hospitals are taken into account, Salim Abdool Karim, epidemiologist and chairman of the government’s COVID-19 advisory committee, told The Associated Press in an interview.

He hopes that a nationwide survey for the presence of antibodies to the virus will show results soon. Similar surveys are beginning in other countries across Africa, which has seen far fewer confirmed cases and deaths in the pandemic than health experts once feared.

South Africa makes up roughly half the confirmed virus cases in Africa with more than 650,000. Abdool Karim said the concentration of cases in South Africa is not just because of a much higher level of testing. He, like other health experts in Africa, have pointed to the continent’s younger population and early lockdowns that gave authorities more time to prepare.

“When this virus takes hold, you cannot ignore it or hide it,” he said. “I have spoken to doctors at hospitals in Lagos and other cities and they are not seeing a massive influx of patients with respiratory illness. I don’t fully understand why so many African countries have not had a bigger epidemic. I would have thought that Lagos (Africa’s largest city) would have seen an explosion of cases.”

South Africa reached its peak caseload in mid-July, Abdool Karim said. Now the country is seeing substantial declines in new confirmed cases, deaths and hospitalizations.

“We have a full cascade of indicators going consistently in the same downward direction. This gives me confidence that we are heading for a threshold of low transmission,” Abdool Karim said. “We are now in a good position to relax restrictions while remaining vigilant to respond to any signs of a second surge.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the country will further relax lockdown restrictions at midnight Sunday, enabling the economy to return to about 95% activity, according to business experts.