South Africa‘s Covid cases double in a day, but hospital admissions remain flat amid fears of an Omicron-drive wave of infections.
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 8,561 new Covid cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, a jump of 95.8 per cent in a single day. Just 4,373 infections were recorded yesterday.
Cases have been soaring in the country since the super mutant Omicron variant emerged, which experts say appears to be more infectious than Delta and has mutations that may allow it to dodge vaccine protection.
Some 51,977 people were swabbed in the country and 16.5 per cent tested positive for the virus. For comparison, 42,664 people took a Covid test yesterday and 10.2 per cent tested positive. Last Wednesday, just 3.6 per cent of individuals tested positive.
Meanwhile, Covid hospital admissions remained flat and 28 deaths were recorded.
The figures come after health chiefs said the variant may be less severe than previous strains.
A World Health Organization official said there is no evidence the new variant has any impact on vaccine effectiveness against serious illness and those infected are reporting mild symptoms.
And health chiefs in Botswana — where Omicron is believed to have emerged — revealed that 16 out of 19 of its confirmed cases were asymptomatic and symptoms are ‘very, very mild’ among those who have them.
And Israeli officials claimed that a booster dose of Pfizer’s vaccine provides up to 90 per cent protection against severe illness from Omicron.
But experts warn it will be at least two weeks until they have a better understanding of what impact the variant could have.
But Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO, said ‘surveillance bias’ could be underestimating the severity of Omicron, because young people have been the main spreaders of the strain.
And SAGE, No10’s scientific advisors, warned Britain should brace for a ‘potentially very significant wave with associated hospitalisations’ this winter if the worst estimates about Omicron turn out to be true.
This map shows the pace of surging infections in the country. In Gauteng, the epicentre, they are rising week-on-week by more than 300 per cent alongside its neighbours the North West and Limpopo. Scientists say the variant is likely already in every province of the country, although it is unclear at present how many cases are linked to the strain
It comes as a spokesperson for the WHO, speaking anonymously to Reuters, said early data suggests the mutant strain is better at infecting people than Delta, even the fully vaccinated. But there is no signal that existing vaccines will be any less effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths, they said.
It is unclear what evidence the WHO is referring to, but the comment marks the first official hint that the Omicron super-strain may not wreak as much global havoc as initially feared.
But despite fears about Omicron, South Africa is still recording far fewer overall Covid cases per population size than both the UK and US.
Figures from the Oxford University research platform Our World in Data shows South Africa has 46 cases per million people compared to 628 in the UK and 246 in the US. Cases are rising sharply in South Africa but are starting at a low base.
So far, only 172 Omicron cases have been confirmed in South Africa and doctors there maintain that patients with the new variant are presenting with milder symptoms than previous strains — even though daily cases have soared 400 per cent in a week to 4,373 yesterday.
Botswana — the country where Omicron is believed to have emerged — today revealed that 16 out of 19 of its confirmed cases were asymptomatic.
But Covid hospitalisations are starting to rise in the South African epicentre of Gauteng province, which is raising questions about how mild the variant truly is.
The province recorded 580 hospitalisations this week, in a jump of 330 per cent from 135 hospital admissions two week ago, according to official Government data.
But just a quarter of South Africans have had two Covid vaccine doses, which makes interpreting the data challenging. In the city of Tshwane in northern Gauteng, 87 per cent of hospital admissions this week were among the unvaccinated.
For comparison, 70 per cent of people in the UK are double-jabbed and the figure is as high as 80 per cent in some European nations.