The Omicron variant of the coronavirus detected in southern Africa could be the most likely candidate to displace the highly contagious Delta variant, the director of South Africa’s institute for communicable diseases said on Tuesday.
Omicron’s discovery has caused global alarm, with countries limiting travel from southern Africa for fear it will spread rapidly even in vaccinated populations and the World Health Organization says it carries a high risk of increased infections.
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“We think what will surpass Delta? That has always been the question, at least in terms of transmissibility, … maybe this particular variant is the variant, ”Adrian Puren, acting executive director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa, told Reuters in an interview. .
If Omicron turns out to be even more transmissible than the Delta variant, it could lead to a sharp increase in infections that could put pressure on hospitals.
Puren said scientists must know within four weeks to what extent Omicron can evade immunity generated by vaccines or a previous infection, and whether it leads to worse clinical symptoms than other variants.
Anecdotal accounts from doctors who have treated South African patients with Covid-19 say that Omicron appears to be producing mild symptoms, such as a dry cough, fever and night sweats, but experts have cautioned against drawing firm conclusions.
Puren said it was too early to say whether Omicron was displacing Delta in South Africa, as local scientists have only produced 87 Omicron sequences so far.
But the fact that cases have started to increase rapidly, especially in the more populous province of Gauteng, is a sign that some displacements may already be taking place.
Delta fueled a third wave of Covid-19 infections in South Africa that peaked at more than 26,000 cases per day in early July. Omicron is expected to trigger a fourth wave, with daily infections topping 10,000 by the end of the week from around 2,270 on Monday.
Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at the NICD, said infections appeared to be increasing across the country.
On Monday, a NICD presentation pointed to a large number of Covid-19 admissions among infants under the age of two as an area of concern. But von Gottberg cautioned against linking that to Omicron for now.
“It seems that, in fact, some of those admissions may have started before Omicron’s appearance. We are also seeing that there was an increase in influenza cases only in the last month, so we must be very careful to observe the other respiratory infections, “he said.
“We are analyzing the data very, very carefully, but at the moment I am not very sure that we can definitively link it to Omicron.”
South Africa has been praised for alerting the global scientific community and WHO so quickly to Omicron, a courageous move given the damage that travel restrictions imposed by various countries, including the UK, will inflict on its important tourism sector.
The country has reported close to 3 million Covid-19 infections during the pandemic and more than 89,000 deaths, the majority on the African continent. (Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Johannesburg Edited by Alison Williams)