South Africa: Covid cases soar as country deals with the spread of Omicron variant

Omicron variant 'will dominate Delta before Christmas' says expert

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Ever since South Africa became the first country in the world, last month, to report an official case of the new Covid variant, Omicron, the world has been watching closely to understand how it impacts case rates, hospitalisations and vaccine efficacy. Now as case numbers begin to rise in the country, there are concerns over what the true impact of the strain could be.

Last month, South Africa became the first country across the globe to report an official case of Omicron to the WHO.

Omicron has now been detected in more than 55 countries around the world, including the UK, which has recorded 817 cases – as of Thursday December 9.

The WHO classed it as a “variant of concern” two days after it was reported and has since been conducting a range of studies to determine the full impact of the strain – which initially was feared could carry a higher risk of reinfection.

Early findings are mixed, with preliminary data out of South Africa suggesting that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant – which to this point has been the globally dominant strain of Covid – but that it also causes less severe illness.

Covid cases in South Africa

The latest report from the WHO – published on Tuesday December 7 – shows that the number of Covid cases in South Africa has risen significantly since the second week of November.

In fact, 62,021 new cases were reported between November 29 and December 5 – which represents a 111 percent increase compared with the previous seven days.

However, it’s not possible to say if all of these cases are Omicron, despite the variant being reported as the dominant strain in the country at this moment.

In the same report, the WHO noted that there had also been “very large increases” in the weekly incidence of Covid cases for some of the countries that neighbour South Africa.

For example, Eswatini had witnessed a 1,990 percent increase from the previous week, while Zimbabwe reported a 1,361 percent rise in cases.

The WHO stressed in its report that: “While drivers of these increases remain unknown, it is plausible that (the) spread of omicron in combination with enhanced testing following the declaration of a VOC (Variant of Concern), play a role, together with the relaxation of public health and social measures and sub-optimal immunisation coverage.”

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What about hospitalisations and vaccinations?

While South Africa has reported a rise in hospitalisations, this type of data is only just starting to be received due to the natural lag that occurs between a person contracting the virus and needing possible hospitalisation.

To date, the evidence that is available – both anecdotal and based on small studies – indicates that patients are experiencing less severe symptoms and illnesses compared with waves that had come before in the pandemic.

South Africa currently has a low vaccination rate, with only about 17.2 million out of an adult population of nearly 40 million fully vaccinated.

Consequently, there is a risk this factor could affect how quickly a variant, such as Omicron, could take hold and lead to greater numbers of hospitalisations.

Earlier this week Pfizer and BioNTech released an initial lab study which revealed the effectiveness of two vaccine doses was greatly reduced against Omicron.

However, the addition of a third dose or ‘booster’ restored the efficacy levels that have been shown against existing strains.

The results led to Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, claiming that people may require a fourth dose sooner than expected to help combat the pandemic.

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