The Department of Health has warned South Africans not to panic over the spread of the Omicron variant as the country was expecting and prepared for the fourth wave.
While a new variant and mutations were expected, scientists said they are still studying the effects and strength against the current vaccines.
Dr Salim Abdool-Karim said they were quite amazed at how fast the number of infections were rising but “we were not caught with our pants down”.
“We expected and prepared for a new variant as far back as in September.
“The government then invested in building capacity to do genomic frequency and this early evidence has given us the best fighting chance against this new variant,” he said.
Abdool-Karim was making a presentation during a media briefing held by the Department of Health yesterday, and following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on Sunday night.
Abdool-Karim said that while there was still lack of evidence on whether the current vaccines were effective against the new variant, he said that evidence should present itself over the next few weeks.
“But, we do expect that vaccines should hold well against hospitalisation of those infected,” he said.
He added that the biggest challenge would also be preventing superspreader events.
The scientists and department also urged those who are already vaccinated to motivate others to vaccinate and strictly follow preventative measures such as mask-wearing and washing of hands.
Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said the rise of infections served as a reminder there was a deadly virus in the midst and citizens should use what was “tried and tested” in preventing severe cases of Covid-19.
While over 16.5 million South Africans are fully vaccinated, the department said this was a “very small” number compared to unvaccinated people.
So far, early information shows that most Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital and experiencing severe symptoms are unvaccinated, the department said.
Phaahla held a detailed media briefing on Monday to further unpack the address by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and present a state of readiness to respond to the Omicron variant.
Information so far has also shown that most patients were presenting similar symptoms as the other Covid-19 variants.
However, in particular, concerns were raised about the rise of infections in young children and babies.
Scientists and experts that presented at the briefing said the Health Department may have to focus on paediatric hospital beds preparedness in this fourth wave.
Providing an epidemiological update from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Dr Waasila Jassat said Gauteng was the epicentre for the new variant. She said they have seen a sharp increase in infections over the last few days with most cases among the younger age groups of 10 to 29-year-olds.
She further said there has been an increased number of admissions in Tshwane. However other regions in Gauteng were also on the increase.
The experts also spoke out against the closing of borders to South Africa saying that there was no science to support such decisions.
Phaahla, Abdool-Karim and Department of International Relations and Co-operation Clayson Monyela reiterated the government’s frustration at the decision made by other countries.
Abdool-Karim indicated there was no benefit in closing the borders as the Omicron variant was detected in at least 11 other countries by yesterday.
Monyela also said that they received reports from some South Africans stranded in capitals around the world. He said any South African stranded must go to their nearest South African embassy for assistance.
“It is very unfortunate, sad and quite regrettable to know that travel restrictions have been imposed on South Africa by other African countries. This decision is unwarranted and not based on science. Dirco are engaging all the countries with a view to persuading them to reverse this decision,” he said.