A NOTICEABLE DROP in new Covid-19 cases in recent days may signal that South Africa’s dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations – but they are offering a hint that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.
South Africa has been at the forefront of the Omicron wave and the world is watching for any signs of how it may play out there to try to understand what may be in store.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide last Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 yesterday.
In Gauteng province – South Africa’s most populous region, with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria – the decrease started earlier and has continued.
Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press: “The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the centre of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak.
It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalisations and deaths.
She added it is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease”.
Gauteng province saw its numbers rise sharply in mid-November. Scientists carrying out genetic sequencing quickly identified the new, highly mutated Omicron variant that was announced to the world on 25 November.
The significantly more transmissible Omicron quickly achieved dominance in South Africa. An estimated 90% of Covid-19 cases in Gauteng province since mid-November have been Omicron, according to tests.
And the world seems to be quickly following, with Omicron already surpassing the Delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in some countries.
In Scotland, a pre-print study found that Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalisation compared with Delta.
However, researchers have added that although Omicron appears less severe, it is more transmissible partly because the current crop of coronavirus vaccines are less effective against it.
Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland, labelled the findings of the Scotland study another “qualified good news story”, but said that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.
“A smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases that might ultimately require treatment can still mean a substantial number of people who may experience severe Covid infections that could lead to potential hospitalisation.”
Authors of the Scotland paper, which is yet to be peer reviewed, said if Omicron had been like the Delta variant in Scotland they would have seen around 47 people in hospital suffering from the virus but, so far, there are only 15.
In the US, Omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week, health officials said — and the variant is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the south-east, the industrial mid-west and the Pacific north-west.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK have surged by 60% in a week as Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant variant. Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 89 countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though Omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly less hospital cases, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
Then, cases in Gauteng started falling. After reaching 16,000 new infections on 12 December, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped, to just over 3,300 cases yesterday.
Dr Fareed Abdullah, who works in the Covid-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital, said of the decrease: “It’s significant. It’s very significant.
“The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we’re seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave.”
In another sign that South Africa’s Omicron surge may be receding, a study of health care professionals who tested positive for Covid-19 at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto shows a rapid increase and then a quick decline in cases.
“Two weeks ago we were seeing more than 20 new cases per day and now it is about five or six cases per day,” Nunes said.
But, she said, it is still very early and there are several factors that must be closely watched.
South Africa’s positivity rate has remained high at 29%, up from just 2% in early November, indicating the virus is still circulating among the population at relatively high levels, she said.
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And the country’s holiday season is now under way, when many businesses close down for a month and people travel to visit family, often in rural areas. This could accelerate Omicron’s spread across South Africa and to neighbouring countries, experts said.
“In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled,” said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the Covid-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
“But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak. There are too many external factors, including the movement during the holiday season and the general behaviour during this period,” she said, noting that infections spiked last year after the holiday break.
It is summertime in South Africa and many gatherings are outdoors, which may make a difference between the Omicron-driven wave there and the surges in Europe and North America, where people tend to gather indoors at this time of year.
Another unknown factor is how much Omicron has spread among South Africans without causing disease.
Some health officials in New York have suggested that because South Africa appears to have experienced a quick, mild wave of Omicron, the variant may behave similarly there and elsewhere in the US. But Nunes cautions against jumping to those conclusions.
“Each setting, each country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said.
South Africa’s population, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many western countries, for instance.
Most of the patients currently being treated for Covid-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, Prof Uekermann emphasised.
About 40% of adult South Africans have been inoculated with two doses.
“All my patients in ICU are unvaccinated,” Prof Uekermann said. “So our vaccinated people are doing better in this wave, for sure. We have got some patients who are very ill with severe Covid, and these are unvaccinated patients.”