A child kneels in a manger in front of a Christmas mass at the Catholic Rosebank Church in Johannesburg on Friday, December 25, 2020. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)

The normally joyful and lively Christmas celebrations in South Africa have been dampened by the surge in new cases and deaths due to the country’s variant of COVID-19.

A record 14,305 news cases have been confirmed in the past 24 hours, and with no evidence of South Africa reaching a peak and threatening the country’s health systems, experts said.

A total of 968,563 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, including 25,983 deaths. This is by far the largest number of cases in any of Africa. Africa’s 54 countries, representing 1.3 billion people, have collectively reported more than 2.59 million cases, including more than 61,000 deaths. This comes from figures released on Friday by the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 7-day moving average of daily new cases in South Africa has more than doubled over the past two weeks from 8.65 new cases per 100,000 people on December 10th to 18.25 new cases per 100,000 people on December 24th.

The South African variant 501.V2 is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and is dominant in the country.

To combat the disease resurgence, South Africa has imposed measures including closing many large public beaches, requiring masks in public areas, limiting alcohol sales to four days a week and enforcing a night curfew from 11 p.m. to 4 p.m. That The rate of spread of the disease is leading experts to call for more stringent measures.

South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

A worshiper wearing a face mask holds a lighted candle prior to a morning Christmas mass at Rosebank Catholic Church in Johannesburg on Friday, December 25, 2020. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)

“We need to think about additional restrictions so that people understand the seriousness of the current situation,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Richard Lessells, opposite The Associated Press. “Because many hospitals in many parts of the country are already extremely overburdened.”

In a Christmas message to the country on Friday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize urged all South Africans to take preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus. Mkhize also released a message on Christmas Eve rejecting a proposal by the UK Minister of Health that the South African variant had contributed to the British variant.

Mkhize said statements by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock had sparked the perception that the variant in South Africa was a major contributor to the second wave in the UK

South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

A worshiper wearing a face mask stands in front of burning candles before a morning Christmas mass in the Catholic Rosebank Church in Johannesburg, Friday, December 25, 2020. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)

“This is incorrect. There is evidence that the British variant evolved earlier than the South African variant,” said Mkhize.

There is no evidence that the South African variant is more communicable, causes more serious illness or increased mortality than the British variant or any other variant that has been sequenced worldwide, Mkhize said.

He also said he was against travel bans.

“It is the widespread view of the scientific community that, given the current evidence, the risks of travel bans may outweigh the benefits and that it is possible to contain the variation while maintaining international travel,” he said.

“The UK-South Africa travel ban is an unfortunate decision,” Mkhize said in his statement. “There is no evidence that the South African variant is more pathogenic than the British variant to require this step.”

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    Parishioners wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus attend a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, December 25, 2020. Africa’s top public health official says another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria Further investigation is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    A parishioner wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus attends a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, December 25, 2020. However, more research is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    A parishioner wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus attends a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, December 25, 2020. However, more research is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    Parishioners wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus step out after a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria, on Friday, December 25, 2020. However, more research is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    Parishioners wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus attend a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, December 25, 2020. Africa’s top public health official says another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria Further investigation is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

  • South Africa's variant of the virus is driving the holiday flood of cases

    Parishioners wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus attend a morning Christmas mass at Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, December 25, 2020. Africa’s top public health official says another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria Further investigation is needed. The discovery could set off a new alarm for the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa in recent days and triggered the swift return of travel restrictions. (AP Photo / Sunday Alamba)

Mkhize noted that South Africa is part of a group of “countries that are leaders in genome surveillance: Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom”.

At the head of genome research in South Africa is Professor Tulio de Oliveira, who leads a team of scientists who study the genome sequencing of the new variant.

“I’ll be spending Christmas in my lab,” de Oliveira told AP. “We’ll be working on this research throughout the holiday season.”

Other African countries are also struggling to prevent the disease from returning.

Nigeria has also reported a new variant of the virus and is fighting a resurgence of the disease. The country had reported more than 81,200 cumulative cases on Friday. The 7-day moving average of daily new cases in Nigeria has increased over the past two weeks from 0.21 new cases per 100,000 people on December 10th to 0.40 new cases per 100,000 people on December 24th.

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