South African health officials on Monday urged the public not to panic over the rise of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which appears to be sparking a new wave of cases in the country.
It’s too early, they said, to make a solid assessment of whether Omicron has a higher transfer rate or will cause more hospitalizations or serious illness.
“We simply don’t have solid, reliable data on the clinical presentation,” said Salim Abdool Karim, a leading epidemiologist and HIV/AIDS researcher who is part of the country’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. “But we haven’t raised any red flags so far.”
Scientists are rushing to understand the effect of the cluster of mutations in the Omicron variant. Still, comparison of the mutations with those of other “varies of concern” identified by the World Health Organization suggests that Omicron could be expected to have enhanced transmissibility and some degree of immune escape, Mr Karim said.
The concern in South Africa was prompted in part by a sudden surge in test positivity in the country, which rose to nearly 10 percent from 1 percent, according to data released by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
The increase is largely the result of cases in Gauteng province, a densely populated economic hub with Johannesburg, said Michelle Groome, head of public health oversight and response at the institute. But based on the data, the number of new cases registered is still lower in South Africa, relative to population, than in many European countries.
The country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, which has hospitalized 219 people with Covid, is at the center of the new wave, according to data from the institute. But scientists don’t yet know how many of these hospitalizations were a direct result of Omicron.
While the number of new hospitalizations is still relatively low, there has been a “steep increase” in the past two weeks, said Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
The number of fatalities has not increased, Ms Jassat said. While new cases were highest in people under 35, hospitalizations were more common in people over 65 and very young children.
Existing coronavirus treatments appeared to be effective against Omicron, Mr Karim said, although there was not yet enough data on the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies, which are rarely used in South Africa to treat Covid-19.
It’s also too early to know whether the strain’s potency justifies stricter precautions such as travel bans, scientists say.
In a separate briefing on Sunday, Botswana’s health minister, Edwin Dikoloti, said most of the 19 Omicron cases discovered in his country were “imported” and the first four were diplomats who had already left the country. .
He criticized early references to Omicron as the ‘Botswana variant’, saying that ‘detection was treated as origin’.
Mr Dikoloti said the number of new coronavirus cases in Botswana had decreased and that “the emergence of this variant” threatened to “undo all the gains we have made in recent months”.