COVID-19: Emerging image from South Africa suggests Omicron variant could be a real cause for concern

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COVID-19: Emerging image from South Africa suggests Omicron variant could be a real cause for concern


Don’t be distracted by the headlines that the Omicron variant might be less lethal than Delta. More disturbing images are starting to emerge from South Africa.

And here are two.

The first is data from South Africa COVID-19[feminine[feminine follow-up consortium on new cases.

Image:
Data from the South African COVID-19 Monitoring Consortium shows Omicron’s impact. Pic: SACMC epidemic explorer

These charts show a “sustained increase” (colored orange) in cases in recent days in most provinces of South Africa. Opposite is the province of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital of South Africa.

This is where the Omicron was first documented.

I’ve been told that data released later this week will show that almost all of this increase is likely due to cases of the Omicron variant.

Like the labs here in the UK, a PCR test for Omicron looks clearly different from the previously dominant Delta variant due to the ‘S gene drop’. This is now the typical feature of South Africa’s fourth wave cases.

What’s really concerning about these graphs is that the Omicron wave is much steeper than the Delta wave that hit South Africa during their winter (in the middle of each graph in red).

Delta was by far the most transmissible variant of COVID seen so far. It has also infected millions of South Africans. That, plus 24% of South Africans vaccinated, should leave the majority of the population with some immunity to infection.

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So what you’d expect to see then, if a virus as transmissible as the delta caused a second wave, is a much slower growth in infections – because of that herd immunity.

But here in South Africa, we don’t. So either Omicron is much more transmissible than Delta, or it bypasses antibodies from a previous vaccination or infection. In all likelihood, due to its multitude of mutations, the new variant probably does a bit of both.

Now, it wouldn’t be so bad if Omicron wasn’t a very deadly virus. Many experts have suggested this week that Omicron’s cases appear to be mild.

But there are some issues with this. First, the populations of South Africa and Botswana are much younger than that of Europe. We know that young people are more likely to get mild infections. Second, Omicron has only been around at notable levels for weeks. And it may take a few weeks for cases to end up in the hospital.

This is where the second table comes in. Hospitalizations are now increasing in Gauteng province. And given the increase in the number of cases induced by Omicron, it is reasonable to assume that this confession is the cause as well.

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Hospitalizations are now increasing in Gauteng province. Pic: SACMC epidemic explorer

There are a few caveats here. New outbreaks of new variants when the number of infections is low (as is the case at the start of this wave in South Africa) can start very strongly and then slow down. Especially if they are confined to a particular group.

The very steep Delta wave in the unvaccinated areas of North West England was one example. It is also possible that the hospitalization curve does not increase as quickly as the case curve. It will be a reassuring sign.

But so far, there is nothing very reassuring about the data from South Africa.

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