According to the director of South Africa’s communicable disease institution, the omicron variant of the coronavirus discovered in southern Africa might be the most probable contender to replace the highly infectious Delta vartiant.
The discovery of omicron has sparked widespread concern, with governments restricting travel from southern Africa out of worry that the virus may spread swiftly even among vaccinated people, and the World Health Organization warning that it poses a high risk of infection increases.
“We thought what will outcompete Delta? That has always been the question, in terms of transmissibility at least, … perhaps this particular variant is the variant,” Adrian Puren, acting executive director of South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said in an interview.
If Omicron proves to be even more transmissible than the delta variant, it might result in a dramatic increase in infections, putting hospitals under strain.
Puren expects scientists to know in four weeks if omicron can defy vaccination or past infection-induced immunity, and whether it causes worse clinical symptoms than other variations.
According to anecdotal reports from clinicians who have treated Covid-19 patients in South Africa, omicron appears to cause moderate symptoms such as a dry cough, fever, and night sweats, although specialists advise against drawing definitive conclusions.
Puren said it’s too early to tell if omicron is displacing Delta in South Africa because local scientists have only produced 87 omicron sequences so far.
However, the fact that instances of infections have been fast increasing, particularly in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, indicates that considerable spread of the variant has already occurred.
In early July, the delta variant triggered a third wave of Covid-19 infections in South Africa, with around 26,000 cases per day. The fourth wave is predicted to be triggered by omicron, with daily infections projected to reach 10,000 by the end of the week, up from roughly 2,270 on Monday.
According to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at the NICD, illnesses appear to be spreading across the country.
A substantial number of Covid-19 admissions among babies under the age of two years was highlighted as a source of worry in a NICD presentation on Monday. Von Gottberg, on the other hand, advised against making the connection with Omicron just yet.
“It looks like in fact some of those admissions might have started before the emergence of Omicron. We are also seeing that there was an increase in influenza cases just in the last month or so, and so we need to be really careful to look at the other respiratory infections,” she said.
“We are looking at the data very, very carefully, but at the moment I’m not too sure that we can link it definitively to Omicron.”
South Africa has been commended for speedily alerting the international scientific community and the World Health Organization (WHO) about Omicron, a courageous move given the harm that travel limitations imposed by a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, will cause to the country’s important tourism sector.
During the epidemic, the government recorded about 3 million COVID-19 infections and over 89,000 fatalities, the largest on the African continent.
(Adapted from NDTV.com)