Omikron in South Africa: more infections, but fewer deaths

Status: December 17, 2021 1:19 p.m.

The world looks to South Africa with concern: How is the situation developing there in view of the Omikron variant? The authorities are now reporting again that although the number of infections is increasing, there are fewer deaths.

The new Coronavirus variant Omikron is causing increasing numbers of infections in South Africa, but apparently fewer serious illnesses and deaths than in previous waves of pandemics – this is reported by the health authorities.

Given the rapid spread of the variant, South Africa registered the highest number of new infections every day since the pandemic began on Wednesday, said Michelle Groome of South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). The number of hospital admissions, however, is growing “not at such a dramatic rate”.

Is the variant losing momentum?

In the previous epicenter, however, the variant seems to be losing momentum. “There are early signs that we have peaked in Gauteng Province,” said Health Secretary Joe Phaahla. The area around the metropolis of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria had a share of 25 percent of the daily new infections nationwide until Thursday. Phaahla said ten days ago there were 70 to 80 percent of new infections in Gauteng.

“We’re starting to see some increases, but relatively small increases in deaths,” added Groome. NICD expert Wassila Jassat said the number of Covid-19 patients who needed supplemental oxygen was “lower than in any previous wave”. In addition, patients seemed to have had to stay in hospital less than in previous waves of the pandemic.

Vaccinations and previous infections

According to Health Minister Phaahla, the observations do not mean that Omikron is less dangerous than previous Corona variants. A large part of the population had previously been infected with Corona and the vaccination campaign was being promoted, it said. The lower hospitalization and death rates are “likely due to significant vaccination coverage,” particularly among the elderly, Phaahla said. “We believe that it is not necessarily simply that Omikron is less virulent,” says Phaala.

In South Africa, only around 31 percent of the population are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. For people over 60 years of age, however, the vaccination rate is 66 percent. Elderly people are particularly at risk of developing serious symptoms with a corona infection.

Too early to make sure conclusions

According to scientists, however, it is still too early to be able to draw reliable conclusions from the development of the current corona wave in South Africa.

The omicron variant was first detected by scientists in South Africa last month. The new variant differs from the wild type of the coronavirus in 50 places, including 32 changes in the gene of the spike protein with which the virus attaches to human cells. Because of the many mutations, it is assumed that Omikron is significantly more contagious than previous coronavirus variants.

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