Low levels of hospital admissions relative to the titanic number of new Covid–19 cases in Gauteng is giving some experts hope that the omicron variant could signal the end of the pandemic, reports Rapport.
“If in the second and third wave we’d seen these levels of positivity to tests conducted, we would have seen very significant increases in hospital admissions, and we’re not seeing that,” Netcare CEO Richard Friedland told Bloomberg this week.
Netcare operates the largest private healthcare network in South Africa.
“In our primary care clinics, it is mainly people under 30-years-old,” Friedland stated.
“So I actually think there is a silver lining here, and this may signal the end of Covid–19, with it attenuating itself to such an extent that it’s highly contagious but doesn’t cause severe disease. That’s what happened with Spanish flu.”
It’s important to note that hospital admissions have climbed since the outbreak of South Africa’s fourth wave of Covid–19, but at a much slower pace than positive cases have been detected.
The daily number of new Covid–19 cases in South Africa surged past 10,000 on Thursday, and over 16,000 daily new cases were recorded on Friday and Saturday.
Meanwhile, hospital admissions also saw a dramatic rise from 18 per day to 279 on Friday. However, this is much lower than expected given the exponential increase in positive Covid–19 tests.
“We are seeing breakthrough infections of people who have been vaccinated, but the infections we’re seeing are very mild to moderate,” said Friedland.
“So for health care workers who have had boosters, it’s mostly mild. It’s early days, but I’m less panicked. It feels different to me on the ground.”
Hospitals are also seeing a lot of patients who have been reinfected. It is not yet clear how many people who caught Covid–19 for their second or third time received a vaccine in-between infections.
Pre-eminent South African vaccinologist and Wits university’s Health Services Faculty dean Shabir Madhi corroborated Friedland’s observations.
“Omicron seems to be moving at a faster speed than delta, but at the same time, what seems to be happening is that our hospitalisation rate is somewhat more muted,” Madhi said.
“I’m optimistic that in this resurgence, while the total number of cases will probably be greater, hospitalisations and deaths will be lower than what we experienced during the course of any of the first three waves.”
Madhi said that all indications are that 75% to 80% of people were infected with the virus during the first three waves.
“That is probably going to equip those individuals—not to resist infection—but rather prevent progression of infection to severe disease.”
One area of concern is that children appear to be more susceptible to infection from the omicron variant.
Rapport noted that statistics from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows that around 11% of hospital admissions between 14 and 27 November were children under two years old.
“We’ve had some anecdotal reports from hospitals in South Africa, that yes, they are seeing a few more children in some of the hospitals and are admitting them,” said NICD clinical microbiologist Anne von Gottberg.
“But many of them have an uncomplicated clinical course during the few days that they are in hospital,” she said.
While experts are hopeful that South Africa’s fourth wave will not be as severe as the third—in terms of pressure on hospitals and deaths—they also caution that much is yet unknown.
“In truth, [the virus doesn’t want to kill you, it wants you to stick around,” said Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town and doctor at Groote Schuur hospital.
“The only ones putting their hand on their hearts and telling the world don’t worry, this is going to be mild, haven’t learned enough humility yet in the face of this virus,” Mendelson said.
“It’s always nice to hope, but don’t set everything on this because I think your hopes could be dashed.”
Experts have encouraged South Africans to get vaccinated, as all indications are that vaccines will continue to protect against severe symptoms and death, even against new variants like Omicron.
“Looking at the Omicron mutations, though there are an awful lot of them, there’s nothing really to indicate that the ability of vaccines to fight this is going to be affected to a very great extent,” said Mendelson.
Even if the omicron variant’s mutations give it a level of antibody evasion, vaccines provide T-cell immunity, which has proven to remain effective against various versions of the coronavirus that causes Covid–19.
Reporting with Bloomberg.