By ANDREW MELDRUM
JOHANNESBURG (AP) – Dr Sikhulile Moyo was analyzing COVID-19 samples in his laboratory in Botswana last week when he noticed they were surprisingly different from others.
Within days, the world was on fire with news that the coronavirus had a worrying new variant – one that appears to be causing a dramatic increase in South Africa and offering a glimpse into the direction the pandemic could take.
New cases of COVID-19 in South Africa rose from around 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday. Omicron was detected more than a week ago in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, and has since spread to the other eight provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.
Even with the rapid increase, infections are still below the 25,000 new daily cases reported by South Africa in the previous outbreak in June and July.
Little is known about the new variant, but the tip in South Africa suggests it could be more contagious, said Moyo, the scientist who may have been the first to identify the new variant, although researchers from neighboring South Africa were after him. Omicron has more than 50 mutations, and scientists have called it a big leap in the evolution of the virus.
It is not clear whether the variant causes more serious illness or may escape vaccine protection. Phaahla noted that only a small number of people who were vaccinated became ill, most with mild cases, while the vast majority of those who were hospitalized were not vaccinated.
But in a worrying development, South African scientists have reported that omicron appears to be more likely than previous variants to cause re-infections in people who have previously had a bout with COVID-19.
“The previous infection protected against the delta, and now with the omicron that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore,” one of the researchers, Anne von Gottberg of the University of the Witwatersrand, said on Thursday in a briefing of the World Health Organization.
Although the study did not examine the protection offered by vaccination, von Gottberg said: “We believe that vaccines will always protect against serious illness.”
The results, posted online Thursday, are preliminary and have not yet been the subject of a scientific review.
So far, hospitals in South Africa are facing the increase, even those in Gauteng province, which accounts for more than 70% of all new infections, Phaahla said.
The situation could change as most of those infected so far have been younger people, who usually don’t get as sick as older patients. But Moyo expressed hope that the vaccines would continue to work against the variant.
“I have a lot of hope from the data we are seeing that people who have been vaccinated should be able to enjoy great protection,” he said.
This dovetails with what WHO officials in Asia said on Friday.
While warning that cases may well increase rapidly because of omicron, Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said the measures used against the delta variant – which itself caused outbreaks around the world – should remain at the heart of the response. .
âThe good news in all of this is that none of the information we currently have on omicron suggests that we need to change the focus of our response,â Kasai said.
This means continuing to push for higher vaccination rates, adhering to social distancing guidelines and wearing masks, among other measures, said WHO regional emergency director Dr Babatunde Olowokure.
While more than three dozen countries around the world have reported omicron infections, the numbers so far are low outside South Africa. This has led many countries to rush to impose travel restrictions on visitors to southern Africa – a move WHO officials say could buy time, although the agency has previously urged the borders to be closed.
Travel restrictions have come under heavy criticism from South Africa, which says it is being punished for being transparent and acting so quickly to alert the world to omicron. WHO said it was informed by the country on November 24 of the new variant.
âWhat we need to stress again is that while our scientists and those in Botswana were the first to discover and report on the variant, no one knows where it originated from,â Phaahla said.
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