Johannesburg - South Africans should brace themselves for more Covid-19 waves, but the good news is that indications are that the worst is over as future variants are likely to be less severe.
The National Department of Health and experts on Friday would not give an indication of when the fifth Covid-19 wave was likely to hit, but affirmed it was definitely coming. Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said it was just too early to predict.
“New variants are possible as long as we have the pandemic, because it mutates,” he said.
Deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at North-West University and member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, Professor Jeffrey Mphahlele, said the country was likely to experience additional waves with the fifth wave expected in winter this year.
He added that while it was difficult to predict the severity of the next wave, it wouldn’t be as severe as the first three waves.
“The narrative and the ambition for 2022 should be to break the vicious cycle we find ourselves in. We have to learn to live with the coronavirus, regardless of the mutation. The virus is a moving target.
“We cannot have a situation where every time there’s a new variant, the whole world goes into a panic by closing borders. Some countries are already in their fifth waves,” he said.
Mphahlele said the good news, if any, was that many South Africans had already been exposed to previous variants of the coronavirus and the fifth wave, when it hits, would be mild to moderate.
When it comes to vaccine apathy, Mphahlele said this had been a historic challenge since the advent of vaccines.
Wits vaccinology Professor Shabir Madhia agreed with Mphahlele, saying that more variants were likely to head to South Africa. But he remained optimistic that the worst was over.
“Further variants are always a likelihood, however. Omicron in South Africa is hopefully a prelude to what to expect moving ahead. The death rate of the Omicron variant is only 13% compared to the delta wave,” Madhi said.
“The case rate peaked at slightly lower than the delta wave, despite South Africa not going to higher levels of restrictions as it did in the past when there was an increase in cases.”
Madhi said what happens next would depend on the government’s actions.
“It all will depend on what the new goal is now that the notion of herd immunity has largely subsided.”
A good benchmark for South Africa would be for the number of Covid-19 deaths to fall to that of a typical flu season, Madhi said. On average, 11 000 South Africans die from flu every year.
“In all likelihood, deaths during the Omicron wave in SA will be lower than pre-Covid seasonal flu deaths.”
In the meantime it’s crucial that a number of crucial steps are taken, including the uptake of vaccines, said Madhi.
“The drive to ensure higher uptake of vaccines, including booster doses for high-risk groups, needs to continue.
“Also, considering that only 10% of infections are actually documented in South Africa because so few people are being tested, a more pragmatic approach to isolation is warranted, mainly if people are symptomatic,” he said, adding that quarantining now would not bring about any major reduction in transmission.
There also needs to be recognition that contact tracing in South Africa, and other similar settings, is unlikely to be of any value, said Madhi.
He stressed that there was room for the gradual relaxing of non-pharmacological interventions.
“In particular, the token gesture of hand hygiene and superficial thermal screening should be scrapped. There is little reason to disallow events such as attendance at outdoor sporting events.”
He does believe that the government should still encourage mask wearing and that venues be adequately ventilated. Mandatory vaccinations should be considered, to prevent Covid-19 hospitalisation, he said.
“Attention also needs to be given to how incidental Covid-19 infections, that is people diagnosed with Covid-19 when they’re admitted for a non-related medical issue, are managed in hospitals.”
What is concerning, he concluded, is that according to the National Department of Health’s Covid-19 website, 28 164 339 South Africans have been vaccinated which only translates to 26.9% of the population.
This leaves a lot of work that still needs to be done, Madhi concluded.