New variant

Those gravely ill from Omicron are unvaccinated, says NICD

Data so far suggest transmissibility of Omicron is increased and is being driven by younger people, say experts

29 November 2021 - 13:21
Nurses see to a Covid-19 patient in a Covid-19 ICU ward during a previous wave of the pandemic.
THE FRONT LINE Nurses see to a Covid-19 patient in a Covid-19 ICU ward during a previous wave of the pandemic.
Image: Emile Bosch

The vast majority of patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 due to the new Omicron variant “are unvaccinated”.

This is according to Dr Waasila Jassat, of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), who spoke at a department of health briefing on Monday.

Indications suggest thus far that the variant is highly transmissible, but that those who are becoming seriously ill have not been vaccinated.

According to head of public health surveillance at the NICD Dr Michelle Groome, “we are seeing just under 2,000 new cases a day and the percent positivity rate is going up”.

She said most (80%) new cases are appearing in Gauteng, but that Limpopo and North West are also seeing a rise, with resurgences “being driven by younger age groups”.

This is because such age cohorts are “more likely to congregate and socialise, and this is similar to what has been observed in other waves”.

However, those succumbing to the disease are people over the age of 65.

Of concern is a higher number of children under two getting ill and “we may need to look at paediatric bed preparedness”, said Jassat.

There has been an “earlier increase in Tshwane and then other districts started to see increases too”, she said.

While scientists work round the clock to find out more about Omicron, Prof Salim Abdool Karim said some of the mutations are familiar enough for some extrapolations to be made.

Other mutations are being seen for the first time and much research is still needed.

It could take between two and four weeks to nail down the facts of Omicron, but according to Abdool Karim, “current vaccines’ effectiveness against hospitalisation and disease is likely to remain strong”.

Speaking at a government press briefing on Monday, he said this isn’t yet known “definitively”, but can be extrapolated “based on what we know and how other variants of concern have reacted to the vaccines”.

Abdool Karim said the issue of vaccines is “the area that has created concern and is behind the global over-reaction”. However, there is cautious but positive news.

“What we do know — and this comes from many different studies — is that even over time the protection of the vaccines against variants has remained pretty good, above 90%.”

While more research is needed on this and the variant’s effect on severe disease and transmissibility, “there is much we can extrapolate at this point based on mutations that are familiar to us from previous variants”.

Diagnostics should “still function well”, but we can “expect enhanced transmissibility”, said Abdool Karim.

In terms of severity of illness, “we simply do not have sound, reliable information as yet, but so far there are no red flags. However, we can’t be complacent.”

All “the usual public interventions” work and must stay in place.

“We were not caught with our pants down. As far back as September I outlined what I anticipated the trajectory of the pandemic would be based on the three waves, and if we look at that situation, the government invested in building capacity to do genomic sequencing in Africa and particularly in South Africa, and that investment has now paid dividends,” said Abdool Karim, adding that what is now needed is to “turn our science success into a response success”.

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