Concerns grow as South Africa’s Covid positivity rate nears record levels

The World Health Organization has raised concerns around the growing number of Covid-19 cases in South Africa.

While this fifth wave of cases was largely expected, South Africans need to ensure they are fully vaccinated, Dr Owen Kaluwa, the World Health Organization representative in South Africa, told the City Press.

“We know that a number of scientists predicted this would happen around this time. The debate as to whether we are already in a fifth wave or not is, in my view, not very important.

“What is important now, given the increasing numbers of infections, is for those who are not vaccinated to do so urgently. This includes those who are partially vaccinated,” he said.

Despite this rapid increase in cases the country will not need to reintroduce lockdown restrictions, said health and social security expert Professor Alex van den Heever.

He pointed to the fact that South Africa follows a clear trend of increasing cases around July and December, with a combination of prior infections and vaccinations providing sufficient immunity for the population.

Health minister Joe Phaahla published new Covid regulations on Thursday (5 May), but these are seen as a temporary measure ahead of broader changes planned under the National Health Act in the coming months.

Record levels

South Africa’s daily coronavirus test positivity rate neared a record on Saturday (7 May), rising above 30% for the first time in almost five months as two sublineages of the omicron variant spread rapidly ahead of the nation’s winter season.

There were 8,524 new Covid-19 cases identified, representing a 31.1% positivity rate of those tested, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said.

That’s the highest rate since the 32.2% recorded on 25 December, when a record 26,976 cases were recorded. The surge means South Africa is close to its highest positivity rate yet. The record so far was 34.9% on 14 December, Bloomberg reports.

The positivity rate is taken as an indicator of how fast the disease is spreading through the community as many cases go undetected.

Still, only five deaths were recorded in the last 48 hours and just over 2,600 people are in the hospital with the disease. At the peak of the wave in mid-2021 when the delta variant was rampant, hundreds of people were perishing daily and hospitalizations peaked at about 16,000.

South Africa, which together with Botswana identified the omicron variant in November, was the first country to experience a wave driven by the strain and the way it played out was seen as an indication for what could happen elsewhere.

Last month South African scientists identified two omicron sublineages, BA.4 and BA.5, and laboratory experiments have since shown that those strains can reinfect those who have already had the original omicron strain.

The current surge in infections and positivity shows that even though previous waves have been caused by the emergence of new variants the sublineages are now having the same effect, Tulio de Oliveira, who runs gene sequencing institutes in South Africa, said on Twitter.

With further reporting by Bloomberg.

Read: Covid vaccine certificate headache for South Africa

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Concerns grow as South Africa’s Covid positivity rate nears record levels