South Africa’s Covid cases hit highest level in five MONTHS
Covid cases in Omicron-stricken South Africa spiralled to their highest level in five months today — but early data suggests the mutant strain is milder than Delta.
The country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases has recorded another 19,842 infections over the past 24 hours, more than double the number last Wednesday.
This was also the highest number of infections detected on a single day since early July, when the nation’s Delta wave was dying down.
Despite doctors on the ground in South Africa insisting that Omicron is causing only mild illness, today’s 374 hospital admissions are up 170 per cent in a week.
However, analysis suggests fewer patients are being moved to ventilators or intensive care units now compared to at the same point in the nation’s Delta wave.
Daily Covid deaths also rose 28 per cent with 36 announced. There is a bigger lag in fatalities because of the time taken for someone infected with the virus to become seriously ill and die.
It comes after a MailOnline analysis of hospitalisations in Omicron’s ‘ground zero’ Gauteng province revealed that two-thirds fewer Covid hospital patients are being admitted to ICU.
British experts said the promising data offered evidence that the variant could trigger a milder illness than other mutant strains. And World Health Organization officials said in a press briefing there was ‘some evidence’ the mutant strain triggered more mild illness than the Delta variant.
But experts point out it is still early days, and that it takes time for people infected with the virus to become ill enough to be admitted to hospital and develop severe disease. They add that more people having immunity from vaccines or previous infection in the country may also play a role.
And even if the new strain is milder, experts fear if it can infect significantly more people than Delta then it will cause bigger surges in hospital admissions than its predecessor.
Britain has recorded 568 cases of the Omicron variant, with experts warning cases are doubling every two to three days and that it could outcompete Delta before Christmas.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases publishes South Africa’s daily case counts. Its figures today showed that infections had more than doubled in a week and reached their highest level for five months
Broken down by province, most of the new cases are still being recorded in Gauteng at the epicentre of the outbreak. But cases are ticking up in every province of the country
The above map shows the week-on-week percentage change in Covid cases by province in South Africa. It shows cases areat least doubling in every province week-on-week except Gauteng, which has the highest infection rate and is at the epicentre
The proportion of Covid patients hospitalised in Gauteng, South Africa’s Omicron epicentre, is shown during the Omicron (left) and Delta (right) waves. The start of each wave was marked as when South Africa announced its first case of the variant. Figures show that at present the ICU admission rate for Covid patients is just a third of the level seen at the same point during the Delta wave. Experts say this may suggest that the mutant strain is less severe than first feared
The above shows the proportion of hospitalised Covid patients on ventilators during the Omicron (left) and Delta (right) waves. It reveals that levels are currently at a third of what they were when Delta took hold as well. The start date for both waves was set as when South Africa announced its first case of each mutant strain in the country
The above graphs compare cases (left), Covid hospitalisations (centre) and ICU admissions (right) during the Omicron (red) and Delta (blue) waves. The start date for both waves was set as when South Africa announced its first case of each variant. Many scientists suggest Omicron is likely more transmissible than Delta, but there may also be more cases because South Africa started counting positive lateral flow tests in its official figures in mid November. Although the number of Covid hospitalisations (centre) is similar during both waves doctors on South Africa’s frontlines have said there are far fewer patients needing ICU admissions and ventilators than at the same point in the Delta wave. This is backed up by official data (left) which shows the number of ICU admissions is currently at a third of the level it was during the Delta wave
In the UK there have been 568 cases detected so far. But fresh fears have been raised of more Covid curbs being imposed before Christmas after experts said the mutant strain could become dominant in weeks rather than months
South Africa’s NICD publishes daily updates on the country’s Covid cases, deaths and hospitalisations.
Covid cases are surging in all nine provinces, and have more than doubled in a week in each one except the epicentre Gauteng where they have already spiralled to very high levels.
But the province — home to the country’s largest city Johannesburg — still recorded the most cases in the country today followed by KwaZulu-Natal (1,989 infections, up 317 per cent in a week), and the Western Cape (1,899 infections, up 203 per cent in a week).
Britain may not face the same spike in cases as South Africa, WHO experts say
Britain may not face a major spike in Omicron-triggered Covid cases because it still has a large Delta outbreak, World Health Organization officials have suggested.
South Africa has seen its cases spiral since the super-strain emerged in late November.
But scientists point out that beforehand the country was recording very few Covid cases, with the daily tally hovering around 300 a day.
For comparison, in Britain where Omicron is yet to take hold daily cases are currently hovering just shy of 50,000 a day.
Scientists say they are not yet sure how Omicron will compete with Delta.
Although No10 scientists suggest it is possible that Britain could face an Omicron wave on top of a Delta wave.
WHO Covid lead Maria van Kerkhove told a press briefing today: ‘In South Africa, they had just finished a wave of transmission with Delta and so transmission was at a very low level.
‘With the emergence of Omicron in a population where Delta was not circulating very much Omicron really took off and it is circulating around the country.
‘What we need to look at now is what will happen in countries where Omicron will compete with Delta and whether we will see the same increasing cases over time with Delta.’
Surveillance shows Delta was dominant in South Africa before Omicron took off, and is still dominant in the UK.
Early data from the NICD suggests the Omicron variant may be less virulent than its rival Delta, buoying hopes that the mutant strain has evolved to be more mild.
In Gauteng 139 Covid patients in hospital were being cared for in intensive care wards on Monday, about two weeks into the nation’s latest wave. This was the equivalent to 8 per cent of all infected patients who were admitted for treatment.
For comparison, there were 393 infected patients in ICUs in the two weeks after Delta took off in the province, or 24 per cent.
NICD figures showed that in the latest week — roughly a fortnight after the strain was first detected — there were 1,371 Covid-infected patients in the province’s hospitals every day, on average.
Some 103 of these were in intensive care facilities (eight per cent), and 30 were hooked up to ventilators (two per cent).
For comparison, in the second week of the Delta wave there were 1,578 patients in hospital every day with 380 in the ICU (24 per cent) and 153 on ventilators (10 per cent).
Overall hospital admissions in the province are tracking at the same speed now as during the Delta wave.
But a much lower proportion involve serious disease where patients need to be treated in the ICU or hooked up to a ventilator.
Across the province, however, intensive care admission rates now appear to be ticking up despite staying at about a third of the levels seen in the Delta wave for more than a week.
Yesterday of the 1,805 Covid patients in hospital in the region 177 were in the ICU (9.8 per cent) and 51 were on ventilators (2.8 per cent).
The start of South Africa’s Omicron and Delta waves were chosen based on when the country announced it had detected its first case of each variant.
For Delta, this was May 8, while the first case of Omicron was announced on November 25.
At the start of the Delta wave, the infection rate across South Africa almost doubled in a fortnight from 23.3 cases per million people to 44.2.
For comparison, when Omicron first took off daily infections surged by almost 2,000 per cent from 9.1 to 177 cases per million.
In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent
Covid cases are also starting to rise sharply in three of South Africa’s neighbours as the Omicron variant takes hold in the region. These are Eswatini — which is landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique —, and Namibia and Zimbabwe which both share more than 50-mile borders with the country
When Delta first took hold in South Africa virtually no one was double vaccinated. But now that Omicron is spreading some 24 per cent of people have got two doses of the vaccine. Many South Africans also already have immunity against the virus from previous infection
This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike
Pfizer vaccine provides FORTY times fewer antibodies to fight Omicron than it does other Covid variants
The Pfizer Covid vaccine could be significantly less effective against the newly discovered Omicron variant than it was against previous strains of the virus.
Researchers at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI) found that there are forty times less antibodies in Pfizer vaccine recipients that can fight Omicron than there are for other variants.
The pre-print study, made available Tuesday pending peer-review, implies that the vaccine could be less effective against the strain detected last month in South Africa.
Conclusions from it cannot yet be drawn, though, and researchers are not yet sure how much more likely the Omicron variant is to cause infection in a vaccinated person than other strains are.
The new variant has been detected in at least 19 U.S. states and nearly 50 countries worldwide as of Tuesday night, and is feared to be the most contagious strain of the virus yet.
The AHRI research team gathered samples from 12 people who were vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine.
None of the participants had received their booster shots yet.
Researchers analyzed the blood samples, and searched for antibodies that had the ability to prevent infection from the new mutant strain.
While the Pfizer vaccine is largely effective against other strains of Covid, including the Delta variant, the many mutations of the Omicron variant seem to be able to evade many of its antibodies.
Cases may be higher during the Omicron wave than when Delta struck because infections were already at very low levels in November.
The South African Government only began to count positive lateral flow tests in its official figures from mid-November, which may have skewed the comparison.
But it also now appears to be almost certain that Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, which would also explain the faster rise in cases.
It is not clear how many hospitalisations in the province were triggered by Omicron, but experts say it is likely to be at least the majority because the variant is now dominant in the area.
Three of South Africa’s neighbours — Zimbabwe, Namibia and Eswatini — are now seeing their cases start to rise as the variant takes hold in the region.
For Zimbabwe, which shares a 140-mile border with South Africa, its infection rate has risen more than 700 per cent in a week from 5.22 cases per million people to 45.6.
In Namibia infections are also up more than 700 per cent from 4.1 to 34 cases per million people. And in Eswatini, a tiny nation landlocked by South Africa and Mozambique, the infection rate has rocketed 1,300 per cent from 11 to 154 cases per million.
Genomic sequencing in the countries is poor, meaning it is not clear how much Omicron is to blame for their outbreaks. But experts have said it was likely to be responsible for the uptick in all three of the countries.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said it was possible that the variant is less virulent than first feared based on the figures.
He told MailOnline: ‘Hospitalisations may indeed be lower than during earlier waves because a larger proportion of the population in South Africa has now acquired immunity through prior infection and/or vaccination or because Omicron itself is less virulent than Delta, or a bit of both.
‘This view is solely based on Gauteng data so far.’
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, agreed that it was possible the mutant strain could be less virulent than Delta.
‘It is quite possible,’ he told MailOnline. ‘But what I would say is you often don’t end up on ventilators until two or three weeks after infection.
‘So it is still too early to be definite, but there are early signs in the data that this may be the case.’
He added that at a WHO meeting this week, data was revealed that showed patients in all age groups were about a third as likely to suffer severe disease as those who caught Delta.
But again, many are still facing a relatively early illness which could get worse over time.
Professor Hunter warned even if it was less virulent the fact it is more transmissible means it could still lead to as many hospitalisations as Delta.