Well-Being

South African scientists give warning on early reports about omicron

The Associated Press/Shiraaz Mohamed

Story at a glance

  • Omicron has fueled a surge of infections in South Africa.
  • Researchers are racing to determine the variant’s effect on severity of illness, transmissibility and whether it can erode or evade immunity provided by current vaccines and previous infection.
  • Data shows previous COVID-19 infections may not protect against the new variant.

Health officials in South Africa say the omicron coronavirus variant is causing an explosion of new cases across the country including a spike in reinfections. 

The highly mutated new variant that was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) last week has fueled a surge of new infections and is now the dominant strain in South Africa, where it was first discovered. More than 8,000 new cases were reported Wednesday, up from about 4,000 the day prior, and health officials Thursday say they expect the numbers to rise exponentially. 

“It looks like there is a predominance of omicron across the country,” Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said during a news conference

Researchers are racing to determine the variant’s effect on severity of illness, transmissibility and whether it can erode or evade immunity provided by current vaccines and previous infection. Those questions are expected to be answered in the coming days. 

But Gottberg said data shows previous COVID-19 infections may not protect against the new variant. 

“Previous infection used to protect against delta and now with omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case,” Gottberg said. “We are seeing an increase for omicron.” 

“However, hopefully it provides them with protection against severe disease, hospital admissions and death,” Gottberg added. 

The health official said she believes vaccines will provide adequate protection against the strain. 


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“We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease, because we’ve seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants, but vaccines have always held up to prevent severe disease and admission into hospitals and death,” she said. 

Early reports have suggested infection due to omicron results in mild infections, but researchers have warned it’s still too early to determine whether that’s the case. 

Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said the latest infections have primarily occurred in younger age groups but are moving into older populations. 

“We are also expecting that the more severe complications may not present themselves for a few weeks,” Groome told lawmakers Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.

The variant has been identified in more than 20 countries. The first case was reported in the U.S. Wednesday. 


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