JOHANNESBURG – Dr Sikhuli Moyo was analyzing COVID-19 samples in his laboratory in Botswana last week when he noticed they looked surprisingly different from others.
Within days, the world was awash with news that there was a new form of worry about the coronavirus – one that is causing a dramatic surge in South Africa and offering a glimpse of where the pandemic may be headed.
New COVID-19 cases in South Africa have risen from nearly 200 daily in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday. Health Minister Joe Fahla said Omicron was detected a week ago in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, and has since spread to all eight other provinces.
Even with the rapid increase, infections are still well below the 25,000 new daily cases that South Africa reported in its previous surge in June and July.
Little is known about the new variant, but the spike in South Africa suggests it may be more contagious, said scientist Moyo, who may have been the first to identify the new variant, although there is evidence from neighboring South Africa. The researchers were on his heels. There are more than 50 mutations in Omicron, and scientists have called it a huge leap forward in the evolution of viruses.
It is not clear whether the variant causes more severe disease or may evade the protection of the vaccines. Fahla said of those who have been vaccinated, only a small number of people have become ill, mostly mild cases, while the majority of those admitted to the hospital were not vaccinated.
But in a worrying development, South African scientists reported that Omicron is more likely to cause reinfection in people who have already fought COVID-19 than earlier variants.
“Previous infections used to protect against Delta, and now it doesn’t seem to be the case with Omicron,” Anne von Gottberg, one of the researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand, told a World Health Organization briefing on Thursday.
While the study did not examine the protection offered by vaccination, von Gottberg said: “We believe that vaccines will still protect against serious disease.”
The findings, posted online Thursday, are preliminary and have not yet received scientific review.
Fahla said hospitals in South Africa are facing a boom so far, even in Gauteng province, which accounts for more than 70% of all new infections.
The picture may change as most of those infected so far are young people, who do not usually get sick like older patients. But Moyo expressed hope that the vaccine will continue to work against the variant.
“I have high hopes from the data that we see that immunizations should have a lot of protection,” he said.
This matches what WHO officials in Asia said on Friday.
Cautioning that omicrons could cause cases to rise rapidly, WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, said the measures used against the delta variant – which led to a worldwide surge – need to be met with response. Must remain in the original.
“The positive news in all of this is that we currently don’t have any information about Omicron that suggests we need to change the direction of our response,” Butcher said.
That means emphasizing high vaccination rates, following social-distancing guidelines and wearing masks, among other measures, WHO’s regional emergency director Dr. Babatunde Olovokure said.
While more than three dozen countries around the world have reported Omicron infections, outside South Africa the numbers are far lower. This has led several countries in the race to impose travel restrictions on visitors to southern Africa – a move WHO officials said could buy some time, although the agency had previously urged against closing the borders.
The travel restrictions have been strongly criticized by South Africa, which it says is being punished for moving so quickly to be transparent and alert the world to Omicron. The WHO said it was informed about the new version by the country on 24 November.
“We must re-emphasize that the variant was first discovered and reported by our scientists and in Botswana, but no one knows where it originated,” Fahla said.