The omicron variant of COVID appears to be reinfecting people at a rate three times higher than previous strains. This has been said by South African experts, as public health authorities and scientists around the world closely follow the evolution of the variant in the country where it was first identified.
“In South Africa there is no panic because the local scientific community expected a new variant”
The European Union public health agency has warned that in the coming months the omicron variant could be present in more than half of the new COVID cases in Europe. But on the other hand, evidence is already emerging that suggests that vaccines continue to protect against the evolution of the disease so that it does not become serious.
The latest epidemiological evidence collected in South Africa by the country’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) suggests that omicron may evade the immunity provided by having been previously infected with another variant and that the rate of reinfections by omicron is three times higher than that which had been recorded up to now.
The South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis has stated together with the NICD that the latest findings “provide epidemiological evidence of omicron’s ability to evade the immunity provided by a previous contagion.” “We believe that a previous infection does not protect against the omicron variant,” said Anne von Gottberg, an expert at the NICD.
As of mid-November, South Africa was recording about 300 COVID-19 cases per day. This Wednesday it reported 8,561 new cases, after having registered 4,373 on Tuesday and 2,273 on Monday.
Describing early research on the newly emerged variant, von Gottberg has said that doctors were observing “an increase in omicron reinfections.” “We believe that the number of cases will increase exponentially in all the provinces of the country,” he said. “But we believe that vaccines will continue to protect against serious disease progression; vaccines have continued to protect against serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
According to other scientists from the same organism, the first evidence suggests that the disease caused by omicron may be less serious than that caused by previous variants, although this could be biased by the fact that in the first cases of omicron there are many young individuals and travelers examined in the early stages.
Rush to get vaccinated
The appearance of the omicron variant has caused a sharp rise in the number of people requesting to be vaccinated. Following South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s warning on Sunday that tougher restrictions could be imposed if immunization rates did not improve, South Africans have rushed to be immunized.
According to Aslam Dasoo of the Progressive Health Forum, the recent increase in the vaccination rate may be insufficient. “It will not be enough to make a dent in the fourth wave,” he told the South African news channel News 24. “The test positivity rate was 1% last Monday and is now in double digits; we are on the crest of the fourth. Hello, all the people you know are a potential risk for you, “he said.
According to doctors in Gauteng province, COVID-19 patients are showing flu-like symptoms, including a dry cough that can be treated at home. Epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim said Tuesday that current vaccines continue to provide high levels of protection against hospitalization and death.
In addition to an exponential jump in the number of cases, South Africa has experienced in this period a strong increase in the positivity rate (the number of people who test positive for COVID-19), from 10.7% to 16 , 5%, and reaching 19% in the province of Gauteng. Even more worrisome has been the rise in Gauteng’s hospitalization rate, which soared 144% last week, nearly doubling every six days.
South Africa has recorded close to 3 million COVID-19 infections during the pandemic and more than 89,000 deaths, the highest number in the entire African continent.
So far, most of the attention on the omicron variant has focused on Gauteng province, but there are signs that it is already catching on elsewhere in South Africa. This Thursday morning in Cape Town, the head of the Western Cape Health Department, Dr. Keith Cloete, announced that a new wave of COVID had reached this province, the southernmost in the country.
“The weekly percentage change in the moving average of new cases for seven days has been over 20% for more than a week, indicating that we have officially entered a resurgence phase,” he said. “For the next few weeks a very large increase in absolute figures is expected,” he added.
Only 16 cases of omicron have been directly identified in the province, but the indicator of the PCR tests leads Cloete to affirm that the omicron variant could be the predominant one and be present in up to 80% of the cases in the last week.
Much has been written about vaccine shortages in developing countries but in South Africa that has not been the main problem. Vaccine supplies have been outstripping demand for several months to the point that, at the end of November, the South African government asked the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to delay the shipment of doses because there was an excess of stocks.
The latest figures speak of 36.3% of adults fully vaccinated (although in those over 60, the percentage of people with at least one dose rises to 64%). But vaccination is lower among the youngest: only 26% of South Africans between 18 and 34 years, the group with the highest rate of infections by omicron, have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Translation by Francisco de Zárate