South Africa is seeing a surge in new COVID-19 cases driven by two Omicron subvariants, according to health experts.
Professor Marta Nunes, a researcher in vaccine and infectious disease analyses at Chris Hani Paragwanath Hospital in Soweto, said about three weeks ago the country had seen increasing numbers of new cases and fairly high hospital admissions, but it had not increased in severe cases and deaths.
“We’re still very early in this surge period, so I really don’t want to call it a wave,” Nunes said. “We’re seeing a slight increase, a slight increase in hospitalizations and very few deaths.”
The rate of new cases in South Africa has risen from 300 a day in early April to about 8,000 a day this week. Nunes says the actual number of new cases is probably much higher because symptoms are mild and many patients are not being tested.
The new South African mutation comes from two different versions of omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which look very similar to the original strain of omicron that was first identified in South Africa and Botswana late last year and has spread worldwide.
“The majority of the new cases are from these two strains. They are still omicron … but they are genetically somewhat different,” Nunes said. She said the new versions appear to be able to infect people who are immune to COVID infection and previous vaccinations, but they generally cause mild illness. In South Africa, 45% of adults are fully vaccinated, although about 85% of the population is believed to have some immunity based on previous exposure to the virus.
“Vaccines still seem to protect against severe disease,” Nunes said.
Nunes said that omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 strains have spread to other countries in South Africa and a few European countries, but it’s too soon to know if they will spread worldwide, as omicron has done.
The increase in novel coronavirus cases comes as South Africa enters the colder winter months in the southern hemisphere and the country is witnessing a rise in flu cases.
At a COVID testing center in the Chiawelo district of Soweto, many people come in for a COVID test, but find out they have the flu.
“We’re now in flu season… so it’s influenza versus COVID-19,” said Magdalene Matsuso, site manager at the Chiaoilo Vaccination Center. She said people are coming in for testing because they have COVID symptoms.
“When we do the tests, you find that most of them are negative when it comes to COVID, but they have flu symptoms,” Matsuso said. So they get treatment for the flu and then go home because the majority are related to the flu, not COVID.
Vuyo Lumkwani was one of those who came for the checkups.
“I wasn’t feeling well when I woke up this morning,” she said. “I woke up with bodily aches, headache, stuffy (nose) and dizzy, so I decided to come here.”
“I was terrified of my symptoms because I thought it might be COVID-19, but I told myself I would be fine because I had the vaccination,” Lomkwani said. She said she was relieved with her flu diagnosis and was advised to go home with some medication and rest.
Two Omicron sub-variables driving the rise in COVID in South Africa: WHO
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