A public health official based in Johannesburg revealed that the highly evolved virus was now behind 75 per cent of cases nationally just eight days after South Africa first raised the alarm about the strain on November 24.
Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s national health agency, told an emergency World Health Organization conference today it ‘does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country’.
Five of the country’s nine provinces have confirmed Omicron cases and officials expect its prevalence to be high in the remaining four areas where positive samples have not yet been sequenced.
There have only been 183 confirmed cases of the strain because only a handful of positive samples are analysed for variants. South Africa is currently recording 8,561 cases per day, which have soared sixfold (571 per cent) in a week from 1,275.
Meanwhile, hospitalisations have more than doubled in the last two weeks, from an average of 86 per day to 184. Despite reports that the strain causes mild illness, the virus was initially circulating among young people — who are not usually hospitalised with the virus.
Professor von Gottberg said scientists are worried about the number of Omicron cases that are being spotted among people who have previously had Covid, compared to the reinfection rate during the Beta and Delta-fuelled waves.
But she said the virus may be no more transmissible than Delta, the illness it causes is thought to be ‘less severe’ and vaccines should protect against illness.
It comes amid contradictory reports on whether Omicron causes mild or severe illness and what impact it will have on vaccine effectiveness. Experts warn current findings are anecdotal and it will take two weeks before they can test how the virus performs in laboratories.
Up to 80 per cent of South Africa’s population is thought to have protection from natural infection, but just a quarter are double-jabbed.
Reports from the WHO and South Africa’s health agency suggest all Omicron infections have so far been mild, but admit there may be a surveillance bias due to young people fuelling the current wave.
But Omicron has more mutations on the spike protein than Delta, which are thought to help it sneak past protection from previous infection and vaccination.
And one WHO official said she has seen reports of people infected with Omicron ranging from mild symptoms ‘all the way through to severe disease’.
The variant has been spotted in 28 countries worldwide and is likely to have been spreading for weeks before South Africa raised the alarm. The Netherlands detected a case one week earlier, while Nigeria found its first case in a sample taken in October.
It was even in the UK before it was first spotted by scientists last week, with nine cases in Scotland on November 20, causing speculation the strain was imported from the COP 26 climate conference or a rugby game at Murrayfield Stadium against South Africa.
Just how heavily Omicron has mutated from both the original Covid virus and other variants such as Delta has been laid bare by new images
Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said it ‘does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country’
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 8,561 people in South Africa tested positive in the last 24 hours — increasing six-fold in a week and nearly doubling on yesterday’s number — equating to a positivity rate of 16.5 per cent. South Africa has recorded 2.9million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Covid deaths have increased from 22 last Wednesday to 28 today, marking a 27 per cent rise. The vast majority of cases are concentrated in Gauteng, the epicentre of the outbreak, in the north east
The graph shows the number of Covid-infected people hospitalised in South Africa each week. Last week, 1,027 people were admitted to public and private hospitals, equating to an average of 146 people per day. Some 552 people have been hospitalised with the virus in the first three days of this week, equating to 184 admissions per day, marking an increase of 26 per cent on last week
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties
Shocking graphic of Omicron’s mutations reveals why scientists are so worried about most evolved Covid strain ever
This is the image that fuelled fear among scientists, sparked the turbocharging of the UK’s massive booster vaccine rollout and saw the return of mask mandates in Britain.
The extent of Omicron’s mutations from the original Covid virus has been laid bare in a new image from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), a group of public and private labs that analyses Covid genomes.
The image highlights the variant’s 32 spike protein mutations compared to the original Covid virus, nearly five times that of the Delta strain.
Concern over its potential as a super-spreader prompted No10 to turbocharge the rollout of Covid boosters, ban travelers from several African nations, and reintroduce compulsory mask wearing.
Omicron’s spike protein mutations H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the COG-UK image, are of particular concern as they could help the virus sneak into the body more easily. These mutations are also found in the Delta variant.
This image of the Omnicron Covid variant shows its 32 spike protein mutations, the highest of any strain found
Professor von Gottberg, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said 183 of the 249 cases that have been sequenced in South Africa this month have been caused by the super strain.
Last Wednesday, 1,275 people tested positive in South Africa — marking a 3.6 per cent positivity rate.
The figure rose to 4,373 on Tuesday, with 10.2 per cent of those swabbed testing positive.
The upward trend continued yesterday, with 8,561 testing positive — increasing six-fold in a week and nearly doubling on Tuesday’s number — equating to a positivity rate of 16.5 per cent.
Professor von Gottberg said about 75 per cent of samples that have been sequenced are Omicron, but she noted there is a lag, due to the time it takes to collect and sequence positive tests.
And the number of positive samples sequenced — when scientists examine a positive sample in a laboratory to determine what Covid strain caused an infection — in South Africa in November equate to less than one per cent of positive cases for the month.
There was ‘bias’ in the first Omicron samples scientists sequenced last month, because they examined positive cases they suspected were a new variant, rather than a random sample of the population.
Professor von Gottberg said: ‘However, it does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country and Omicron has been identified through sequencing in at least five of our provinces that have sequencing data.
‘And we think the other provinces were just not identifying it yet, because we don’t have specimens that have been sequenced for those provinces.’
And she warned that scientists are worried about the number of Omicron cases that are among people who have previously tested positive for Covid.
South Africa has a testing database that matches positive PCR and antigen tests to people so it can count reinfections — which it defines as a positive test from an individual 90 days after they first test positive.
Professor von Gottberg said: ‘We monitored these reinfections for the Beta and for the Delta waves and we didn’t see an increase in reinfection over and above what we expect when the force of infection changes, when the wave stops.
‘However, we are seeing an increase for Omicron.
‘And that sort of speaks to that fact in our population with a high seroprevalence — so where many people have that previous infection — we believe that that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron.
‘However, hopefully provides them with protection against severe disease, hospital admissions and death.’
She also said the virus may be no more contagious than Delta and expects vaccines to continue to protect against severe illness.
The UK and US are both recording much higher levels of infection than South Africa – the epicentre of the Omicron outbreak – but cases are rising sharply and are up 400 per cent in a week
South Africa’s case numbers are likely to be an underestimate because the country is doing far fewer tests than the UK, but a comparable number to the US
Just a quarter of South Africans have had two Covid vaccine doses compared to almost 60 per cent in the US and 70 per cent in the UK
The above graph shows the seven-day average for the change in Covid cases week-on-week. It reveals that cases are now rising in every province of South Africa. It is not clear how many are linked to Omicron, but scientists there say the variant has already spread to every province of the country
Get ready for boosters every year: Pfizer boss says annual jabs needed to maintain ‘very high protection’
Britons might need a Covid booster every year to maintain ‘very high’ levels of protection against the, Pfizer’s boss said today after the UK ordered 114million more shots from his company and Moderna to vaccinate everyone until 2023.
Dr Albert Bourla, chief executive at the company which delivered the world’s first Covid vaccine a year ago today, said global economies will probably need to rely on jabs for years to come to stay on top of new variants and counter waning immunity.
Pfizer is expected to rake in £61billion in revenue for the vaccine this year, double its pre-pandemic takings. But Dr Bourla denied profiteering from the jabs, insisting each was sold to rich countries like the UK for about as much as a ‘takeaway meal’.
The UK has ordered another 114million doses that can be tweaked to fight off variants — including 54million Pfizer jabs and 60million Moderna doses in a deal thought to be worth around £2.05billion
Officials did not reveal how much the Pfizer jabs cost, but EU contracts show the bloc is spending about £16.50 per dose of Pfizer and £19.50 on Moderna’s. They will arrive in 2022 and 2023, with plans already being drawn up to boost the nation’s immunity for at least the next two years.
Business minister George Freeman said Britain was buying more jabs to make sure there was ‘supply’ available in case any further roll outs were needed. He added: ‘We’ve got to make sure that our citizens are safe and that the global vaccine rollout through Covax is supported.’
She said: ‘People talk about increased transmissibility, but I think in this case, this virus might be as transmissible — its own characteristics, the virus characteristics — may be very similar or slightly less than Delta in shedding or being able to be contagious.
‘However, it’s the susceptibility of the population that is greater now because previous infection used to protect against Delta and now with Omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case.
‘We believe that vaccines will still protect against severe disease because we have seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants but the vaccines have always held out to prevent severe disease and admission into hospitals and deaths.’
Scientists believe illness caused by Omicron will be ‘less severe’ among vaccinated people and those who have previously been infected, but they are monitoring this, Professor von Gottberg said.
When asked about reports that Omicron-infected children are being admitted to hospital in South Africa, she said there are reports of youngsters being admitted, but they have an ‘uncomplicatedclinical course’ and are discharged within a few days.
It comes after a spokesperson for the WHO, speaking anonymously to Reuters, yesterday 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 marked the first official hint that the Omicron super-strain may not wreak as much global havoc as initially feared.
The comments came after Botswana’s health ministry revealed it had detected 19 Omicron cases in the country and 16 among the group had no symptoms of the virus.
Dr Pamela Smith-Lawrence, acting director of Health in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, said the majority of the 19 infected people have already tested negative.
And the two people who reported feeling unwell had ‘very, very mild’ symptoms, she said.
It is ‘unfair’ to treat Botswana as ground zero of the new variant, Dr Smith-Lawrence added.
Meanwhile, Israeli health minister Nitzan Horowitz yesterday said there was ‘room for optimism’ about the variant and existing vaccines will shield against severe illness from the super-strain, based on ‘initial indications’.
Hours later, a report by an Israeli news channel claimed the Pfizer jab was 90 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection from Omicron, only slightly less than Delta.
The Channel 12 news broadcast also claimed the super variant is just 30 per cent more infectious than Delta — much lower than initially feared.
For comparison, Delta is 70 per cent more infectious than the Alpha strain, which it outpaced earlier this year.