Omicron Covid-19 variant: We were not caught with our pants down, says SA health officials

We expected and prepared for a new variant and a fourth wave as far back as September, said Dr Salim Abdool Karim. Picture:Zanele Zulu/African News Agency (ANA)

We expected and prepared for a new variant and a fourth wave as far back as September, said Dr Salim Abdool Karim. Picture:Zanele Zulu/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 30, 2021


Cape Town - There is no need for panic or overreaction following the identification of Omicron, the latest Covid-19 variant, said leading SA epidemiologist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim.

The breakthrough was referred to as a “scientific success” due to the early identification by SA scientists and as a result of the investment the country has made into science, said Karim.

The variant was first described in Botswana and then shortly thereafter in South Africa.

This comes as Thailand and Rwanda added themselves to a list of countries which have closed their borders to those coming in from southern Africa since this sequencing of the latest Covid-19 strain.

Following Sunday’s presidential address, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, Professor Karim and health experts held a media briefing to further unpack the address and present the state of readiness to respond to the variant of concern (VoC), Omicron.

“We were not caught with our pants down. We expected and prepared for a new variant and a fourth wave as far back as September,” said Karim.

Karim said diagnostic tests used in South Africa would do “quite well” in detecting Omicron.

With not enough data and too few cases of it studied, not much is known about the clinical presentation of Omicron and if it is worse than its predecessors.

However, anecdotal information suggests similar presenting illnesses as with other variants, and mainly in younger people due to fewer young people having been vaccinated, said Karim.

Current treatment for Covid-19 is effective against Omicron, with no reason or evidence to suggest otherwise.

“The area that has created the concern, and this global over-reaction, is that we’re not sure about whether the current vaccines will protect against this new variant, and there’s some evidence, preliminary as it is, that we can see that the mutations that occur may confer some level of immune escape from antibodies.

“So we can expect to see more reinfections for those who had natural infection without being vaccinated and we may see them getting infected again because this variant will bypass some of that immunity,” said Karim.

Based on past VOCs, vaccine efficacy for hospitalisations and severe diseases are likely to remain strong, with more information related to the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer efficacy to be known, in about three to four weeks, said Karim.

National Institute for Communicable Diseases Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response Head, Dr Michelle Groome, said the country saw the lowest case numbers since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-November 2021.

Now, the country was reporting just under 2 000 cases, compared to the less than 300 previously seen, according to the 7-day moving average.

Dr Phaahla said: “We are doing everything possible to make sure that our health facilities are ready. We know that as the infections rise, people will get sick, some will get severe, especially those who have not been vaccinated. But we know that there’ll also be incidences where those who have even been vaccinated may get ill and the health facilities should be ready.”

He said South Africa will be joining a special World Health Assembly dealing with strengthening the global response to the pandemic.

The country would also be presenting a statement on behalf of southern African countries to condemn the actions of those who have imposed travel bans, said Dr Phaahla.

“So this is also mobilising other countries on the world platform to express our outrage at the travel bans,” said Dr Phaahla.

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