The Omicron variant has fueled a “worrying” increase in coronavirus cases in South Africa and is quickly becoming the dominant strain, local health officials said, as more countries, including the United States, have detected their first cases of the new strain.
The United Arab Emirates and South Korea – which are already battling a worsening epidemic and registering daily infections – have also confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
Dr Michelle Groome of the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said there had been an ‘exponential increase’ in infections over the past two weeks, from a weekly average of around 300 1,000 new cases per day last week, and more recently 3,500. South Africa on Wednesday recorded 8,561 cases. A week earlier, the daily count was 1,275.
“The degree of increase is worrying,” said Groome.
The NICD said 74% of all virus genomes it sequenced last month belonged to the new variant, which was first found in a sample taken on November 8 in Gauteng, the most populous province. from South Africa.
As key questions remain about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, which has been detected in at least two dozen countries around the world, experts are rushing to determine the level of protection offered by the vaccines. World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said in a briefing that data on the contagiousness of Omicron should be available “within days”.
The NICD said early epidemiological data showed Omicron was able to evade some immunity, but existing vaccines should still protect against serious illness and death. BioNTech chief executive Uğur Şahin said the vaccine he is making in partnership with Pfizer is likely to offer strong protection against severe Omicron disease.
As governments wait for a fuller picture to emerge, many have continued to tighten border restrictions in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus.
South Korea imposed more travel restrictions as it detected its first five Omicron cases and fears were growing about how the new variant could affect its continued outbreak of Covid.
Authorities have suspended quarantine exemptions for fully vaccinated inbound travelers for two weeks, which now require a 10-day quarantine.
Daily infections in South Korea hit a record high of more than 5,200 on Thursday, with growing concern over the sharp rise in the number of patients with severe symptoms.
Earlier this month, restrictions were relaxed in the country – which has fully vaccinated nearly 92% of adults – but infections have since increased and Omicron’s presence has fueled new concerns about the pressure on the hospital system already put to the test.
In Europe, the chairman of the European Union’s executive body has said there is a “race against time” to avoid the new variant while scientists establish how dangerous it is. The EU has put the start of the rollout of its vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 forward by one week to December 13.
“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, at a press conference.
Britain and the United States have both expanded their recall programs in response to the new variant, while Australia is revising its timeline.
US infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci has stressed that fully vaccinated adults should seek a booster when they are eligible to give themselves the best possible protection.
Yet the WHO has repeatedly noted that the coronavirus will continue to produce new variants as long as it is allowed to circulate freely in large unvaccinated populations.
“In the world, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage and very low testing – a recipe for replicating and amplifying variants,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, reminding the world that the Delta variant “Represents almost all cases”.
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives in Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save Omicron lives, ”he said.
With Reuters and Agence-France Presse