South Africa will see a steep surge in new daily Covid-19 cases driven by the omicron variant by the end of the week.
That is according to leading epidemiologist and former chairman of the government’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid–19, Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
Abdool Karim presented an overview of what is currently known about the newly discovered variant during a briefing by the National Department of Health on Monday morning.
Daily reported Covid-19 cases in South Africa increased drastically last week, after a relatively quiet period during which the lowest increases in cases were seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cases surged from 312 on Sunday 21 November 2021 to 2,858 by Sunday 28 November 2021.
The omicron variant, which was recently labelled a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation, is suspected to be behind the surge.
Abdool Karim said the variant’s mutations, which have been the main cause of alarm for researchers, pointed to higher transmissibility.
“We are going to get more cases quickly. We’re already seeing early evidence of this,” Abdool Karim stated. “I’m expecting we’ll top over 10,000 cases per day by the end of the week.”
He provided a graph showing how the 7-day moving average of daily reported Covid-19 cases had spiked over the last week.
Abdool Karim explained that Omicron had several overlapping mutations with the Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma Covid-19 variants of concern.
These included mutations associated with increased transmissibility and improved binding affinity, making it easier for the virus to attach to cells.
It also has some mutations that aren’t in other variants, but which are known to increase infectivity and make it harder for antibodies to attach to and kill the virus.
Abdool Karim explained that this could lead to people who already had Covid-19 being at risk of reinfection, and increased breakthrough infections among those who have been vaccinated.
Although reinfections and breakthrough infections were more likely, Abdool Karim said previous experience with other variants showed vaccinated people were less likely to have severe Covid-19 that required hospitalisation, or result in death.
“The vaccines should hold well… because they depend more on T-cell immunity and less on antibodies,” he said.
“Even if there is some escape from antibodies, it’s very hard to escape T-cell immunity.”
The impact of the remaining mutations in Omicron are largely unknown.
It is, therefore, unclear whether it results in worse, the same, or lighter symptoms than its predecessors.
However, Abdool Karim warned that even if Omicron’s clinical presentation (symptoms) were not worse than the other variants, there would be pressure on hospitals within the next two to three weeks due to the rapidity of transmission.
Abdool Karim reiterated that health experts anticipated a new variant could emerge ahead of the fourth wave and that there was no reason to overreact or panic.
He advised that South Africans keep following public health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and sanitising hands to help curb the spread of the disease.
The main challenge would be to avoid super spreader events that could lead to an influx of cases that might overburden hospitals.
In this regard, he said that South Africa needed to move to a strategy where vaccination must become a requirement for access to indoor venues.