Reinfections are more common in Omicron, South African scientists say.

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Previous coronavirus infection appears to offer little to no protection against the recently discovered Omicron variant, scientists in South Africa said Thursday.

The conclusion is based on an estimate of how many people were infected before the variant hit the market, although emerging data supports the scientists’ opinion.

The scientists warned that much about the variant remains unknown, but as Omicron is sparking a spate of new cases in South Africa, they are gaining more insight into it.

In an online briefing held by the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa, government scientists said Omicron shares some characteristics with the Delta variant that could make it more easily transferable. Scientists now fear the threat of the new variant lies in how susceptible populations will be to it.

Scientists estimate that as many as 24 million people of South Africa’s 60 million people have previously been infected with the coronavirus, and 36 percent have been vaccinated. Despite this, the data shows that many people are still getting sick, suggesting the scientists that some people are getting infected again.

“We believe that a previous infection does not protect them against infection by Omicron,” said Anne von Gottberg, a microbiologist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa.

Previous infection provided some degree of protection against the Beta and Delta variants, but reinfection has increased since the detection of the Omicron variant, Ms von Gottberg said at a briefing held by the WHO’s regional office in Africa.

While the number of reinfections at this early stage is difficult to quantify, “it seems more than what the model would predict,” she added.

Previous infections will “hopefully” provide some protection against serious illness, hospitalizations and death, Ms von Gottberg said of an early analysis of the spread of the variant in South Africa.

South Africa has recorded a total of 11,535 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, according to data published Thursday. The cabinet does not yet want to say how many cases this concerns the new variant. While hospital admissions have increased in South Africa, only 4.1 percent of intensive care beds are occupied by patients diagnosed with Covid-19, a WHO official said.

South Africa has also seen an increase in daily vaccinations following the announcement of the detection of the Omicron variant a week ago, but not yet on government targets.

“Vaccines have always held out to prevent serious illness and hospitalizations and death,” said Ms. von Gottberg.

The WHO said it will also support the critical response and support genomic sequencing efforts in southern Africa.

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