South Africa’s COVID-19 cases have nearly quadrupled in the last four days, underscoring concerns around how contagious the new coronavirus Omicron variant might be as the country enters its fourth wave of the pandemic.
On Friday, South Africa reported on 16,055 new COVID-19 cases, up from 4373 new cases on Tuesday.
Friday’s numbers bring the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases past the three million mark since the start of the pandemic, according to data released by the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).
“Today the institute reports 16,055 new COVID-19 cases that have been identified in South Africa, which brings the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases to 3,004,203. This increase represents a 24.3 per cent positivity rate,” Friday’s statement said.
On Thursday, the NICD also revealed that some of the new cases were people who had previously had COVID-19 and had been reinfected with the Omicron variant.
“Previous infection used to protect against Delta but now with Omicron that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Professor Anne von Gottberg, a microbiologist from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said during news briefing on Thursday.
“We monitored … reinfections for the Beta and the for the Delta wave, and we didn’t see an increase in reinfections over and above what we expect when the force of infection changes, when the wave stops.
“However, we are seeing an increase for Omicron.”
Data from South Africa however is showing that reinfections may be less severe, Professor Gottberg said.
“We believe … that disease will be less severe,” Gottberg said.
“And that’s what we’re trying to prove and to monitor very carefully in South Africa.
“The same would hold for those that are vaccinated,” she added, stressing that vaccines will continue to help prevent severe disease and hospital admissions as cases continue to rise at a “rapid” rate.
As the numbers for new cases continue to rise, the number of deaths seems more stable in comparison, with 25 new COVID-19 related deaths reported on Friday, the NICD said.
While only a limited number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country are being sequenced, Gottberg said, out of 249 cases sequenced in November, 183 were confirmed to be the Omicron variant – equivalent to 70-75 per cent of cases.
A total of 65,990 tests were conducted in the last 24 hours, according to the NICD.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation also announced that they will deploy a surge team to the country’s Gauteng province – the current epicenter of the Omicron outbreak – to help with surveillance, sequencing, and contact tracing.
The WHO will also be providing technical assistance to boost the production and distribution of medical oxygen in Botswana, where Omicron has also been detected, Dr Salam Gueye, WHO regional emergency director for Africa said.
WHO scientist urges against Omicron panic
The World Health Organisation’s chief scientist has urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and says it is too early to say if vaccines would be need to be reworked.
Speaking in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain.
Swaminathan said Omicron “was highly transmissible” and cited data from South Africa showing the number of cases doubling daily.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious not panic because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.
“Delta accounts for 99 per cent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible but it’s not possible to predict.”
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries as parts of Europe grapple with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.
“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder… but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said.
Aside from wreaking havoc in the travel industry, the clampdown has pounded financial markets and undermined major economies just as they were beginning to recover from the lockdowns triggered by Delta.
Bank of England policymaker Michael Saunders , who voted for an interest rate hike last month, said on Friday he wanted more information about Omicron before deciding how to vote this month.
“At present, given the new Omicron COVID variant has only been detected quite recently, there could be particular advantages in waiting to see more evidence on its possible effects on public health outcomes and hence on the economy,” Saunders said in a speech.
Germany said it would bar the unvaccinated from all but essential businesses, and controversial legislation to make vaccination mandatory would be drafted for early next year.
Several countries, including the UK and the US, were bringing forward plans to offer booster shots but, like travel bans, they are disputed.
Many scientists say the way to stop the virus spreading is to make sure poorer countries have access to vaccines, not to give blanket booster shots to people in richer countries.
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