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What you need to know about Omicron

A nurse holds swabs and a test tube kit to test people for Covid-19, the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus. Picture: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

A nurse holds swabs and a test tube kit to test people for Covid-19, the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus. Picture: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Published Dec 9, 2021

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South Africa was witnessing the fourth wave of the novel Covid-19 pandemic, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said, days after the Omicron widget was detected in the country.

He said the situation was more concerning than the previous waves.

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“There is a much steeper upward curve than has ever been seen in the last three waves,” Phaahla said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said Omicron was driving the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in the country and there had been a fivefold increase in daily infection rates over the past week.

Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa, the head of operations at Bonitas Medical Fund, answers common questions around Omicron:

What is it Omicron?

It’s a new, heavily mutated Covid variant known as BI.I.529.

When was Omicron first detected?

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The earliest sample was detected on November 11 in Botswana.

Is it more transmissible?

Circumstantial evidence indicates it is. Within two weeks of detection, it has outpaced Delta to become the main strain in Gauteng.

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Will vaccines work against it?

Yes, most likely. A crucial objective remains to increase vaccination rates. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease, hospitalisation and death.

Should updated vaccines be developed, they will be rolled out globally and used as guided by the World Health Organization.

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Will prior infection provide me with immunity?

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron but information is limited. More information on this will become available in the coming days and weeks.

What about treatment?

Oxygen and Dexamethasone have been saving lives. There is, however, very exciting data coming from two antivirals.

What about the current tests?

The widely used PCR tests continue to be the global standard to detect infection, including Omicron.

Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen tests.

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