What the early Omicron data is showing in South Africa: WHO

The Omicron variant is reaching more countries in Africa and weekly Covid-19 cases in the continent surged by 93%. However, there are signs of hope as preliminary data indicates that hospitalisations across South Africa remain low, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Emerging data from South Africa indicates that Omicron could cause less severe illness, the global health body said on Thursday (9 December).

Data that looked at hospitalisations across South Africa between 14 November – 4 December found that ICU occupancy was only 6.3 % – which is very low compared to when the country was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July.

Data from a similar two-week period from one of the health districts most impacted by Omicron found that out of more than 1,200 admissions, 98 were receiving supplemental oxygen and only four were on ventilation.

However, the WHO noted that this is very preliminary data with a small sample size, and most of the people admitted to the health facilities were under the age of 40. As the clinical profile of patients changes, the impact of Omicron could change, it said.

“With Omicron now present in nearly 60 countries globally, travel bans that mainly target African countries are hard to justify,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

“Through the diligent surveillance efforts of African scientists, the new variant of concern was first detected on this continent, but it’s unclear if transmission was taking place silently in other regions. We call for science-based public health measures to counter the spread of Covid-19.”

Moeti noted that the travel restrictions come at the height of the end-of-year tourist season, ravaging Africa’s economies, with a knock-on impact that is potentially devastating to the health of Africans.

“What we do know is that uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines globally is creating an ideal environment for Covid-19 variants to emerge and spread explosively and regions with the least access to vaccines seem likely to suffer the most,” said Dr Moeti.

“With the end-of-year travel and festivities upon us, limited vaccination, rising Covid-19 cases and the new variant paint an ominous picture for our region.”


Read: Government weighing risks of stricter lockdown restrictions for South Africa: minister

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What the early Omicron data is showing in South Africa: WHO