Recent data gathered from South African hospitals has implied that the Omicron variant is less dangerous than those witnessed in previous Covid waves, although it may have a high transmission rate. Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said that there could be a “large number” of cases, but this would likely be counteracted by less people requiring medical attention. Financial Times has the story.
Early data from the Steve Biko and Tshwane District Hospital Complex in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, which is at the centre of the outbreak, showed that on December 2nd only nine of the 42 patients on the Covid ward, all of whom were unvaccinated, were being treated for the virus and were in need of oxygen.
The remainder of the patients had tested positive but were asymptomatic and being treated for other conditions.
“My colleagues and I have all noticed this high number of patients on room air,” said Dr. Fareed Abdullah, a director of the South African Medical Research Council and an infectious disease doctor at the Steve Biko hospital.
“You walked into a Covid ward any time in the past 18 months… you could hear the oxygen whooshing out of the wall sockets, you could hear the ventilators beeping… but now the vast majority of patients are like any other ward.”
The data will reassure global health officials who have been alarmed by South Africa’s rapid rise in infections. But experts have warned that the sharp increase in cases, linked to the new variant’s apparent ability to evade immune protection from previous infection or vaccination, could still strain hospitals to a similar extent as the summer Delta wave.
Meanwhile, concern is growing in neighbouring Zimbabwe where surging infection rates are beginning to test the creaking healthcare system in the first sign of the Omicron wave spilling across the region.
The pattern of milder disease in Pretoria is corroborated by data for the whole of Gauteng province. 8% of Covid-positive hospital patients are being treated in intensive care units, down from 23% throughout the Delta wave, and just 2% are on ventilators, down from 11%.
Although the total number of Covid-positive patients in Gauteng’s hospitals is approaching the level it reached at the same stage of the Delta wave, researchers said a large proportion received treatment for other conditions. And the number of Covid patients in intensive care is one quarter of what it was three weeks into the Delta outbreak.
“I’m extremely optimistic,” said Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who forecast that while there would be a “large number” of breakthrough infections and reinfections, a smaller proportion of cases would end up requiring hospital treatment.
Top U.S. health official Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that early signals about the severity of the variant were “encouraging”.
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