The first studies in South Africa suggest that omicron spreads faster, but with milder symptoms | Society


South Africa, the country that launched the first warning of the omicron variant, which is spreading at full speed across the planet, is already obtaining the first results on this mutation of the coronavirus. Preliminary studies from several hospitals in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new variant, and from the South African Ministry of Health conclude that omicron is “probably more contagious than the delta variant.” In addition, hospital admissions have increased by 200%, but there is no conclusive data to confirm that the disease is more severe with omicron than with previous virus mutations, because the increase in hospitalizations is due to high transmission and not to its severity and the percentage of patients with severe symptoms due to omicron is very small – it is studied whether due to vaccines, although in South Africa only a third of the adult population is vaccinated.

There is not enough data to know the consequences of the mild symptoms suffered by most of the vaccinated population that is being infected. Regarding the hospitalization of minors up to five years of age, the initial 25% (in the first weeks) has gone to 8%, and most were admitted not for symptoms related to covid-19, but for other ailments (such as jaundice, malaria or broken bones) and they tested positive when they were given the mandatory test that is done to anyone who accesses a hospital in South Africa.

Epicenter of the omicron outbreak

“During the last 18 months, when you entered the covid area of ​​the hospital you could hear the oxygen from the machines connected to the patients, the beep of the respirators, but now most of the patients are like in any other area of ​​the hospital”, explained Fareed Abdullah, director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and a communicable disease physician at Steve Biko Hospital in Pretoria. They were contently hopeful and optimistic words when sharing hospitalization data and the status of people admitted with covid-19, compared to the dire situation they were in in July this year, during the peak of the third wave.

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Abdullah reported that between November 14 and 29, 166 patients were admitted to the Tshwane District Hospital Complex and Steve Biko Academy, most of whom did not require oxygen. “A significant fact is that the hospital stay has been greatly shortened, from 8.5 to 2.8 days, an appreciation that is also confirmed by the National Institute of Contagious Diseases (NICD, in its acronym in English). And on December 2, of 38 adults in the covid area, six were vaccinated, 24 were not, and of eight their vaccination status was unknown. Of the nine with covid pneumonia, eight were not vaccinated and one was a minor. Only one patient who required oxygen was immunized, but the reason for this support is that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “the report adds.

When comparing the same moment of the delta variant with the omicron, the scientists point out that those admitted to the ICU have gone from 23% to 8% and those who require respirators, from 11% to 2%.

In line with what was informally advanced by doctors, both in private and public consultations, 80% of hospital admissions are for those under 50 years old – 28% between 30 and 39 years old, and 19% under children. nine-year-olds – and most learned they had the disease by testing positive in hospital when they went to get cured of other ailments or to give birth. The report concludes that on December 2, “70% of covid patients did not need oxygen or had symptoms of respiratory distress, only 13 needed the help of oxygen, and of these nine had covid-19.”

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Vaccination in South Africa on September 10.
Vaccination in South Africa on September 10. SIPHIWE SIBEKO (Reuters)

Updating these data a week later, Freddy Kgongwana, head of hospital services at the Gauteng Health Department, explained on SAFM public radio that of 943 people admitted for covid, 665 were breathing on their own, 234 needed oxygen support and 54 were connected to a ventilator because they are unable to breathe on their own. “With omicron you do not need as much oxygen as with delta, but we do not trust, we are only at the beginning of the fourth wave”, pointed Kgongwana.

Questioned immunity

“As more people are taking the covid test, they are registering more positives, which indicates that omicron is spreading very quickly. The percentage of people who test positive is higher, and we are observing that people who had passed the covid are infected again, “said Kgongwana.

Mia Malan, Editor-in-Chief of Take a closer look, a publication specialized in health journalism, assures that “it is rare for vaccinated people to end up in the hospital”, but the reinfection rate, after having obtained immunity both with the vaccine or naturally contagious previously, is three times higher than with the delta and beta variants. “In Gauteng the dominant variant is already omicron and according to the data provided by the hospitals during the first two weeks of the variant, a quarter of the tests were positive, the duration of admissions has been reduced (from eight to two days), less oxygen has been needed to stabilize them and the death toll has dropped considerably “, points out Malan without dismissing that it is too early for anything that is said to be conclusive because” people need time to become infected and die, so it is possible that in a few weeks we will be talking about a patient profile of the different omicron variant ”.

In South Africa, only a third of adults are fully vaccinated, and the age group over 50 – the goal is for 70% to have at least one dose by the end of December, increasing by 10% more – is the one that worries the most due to their vulnerability and the possibility of suffering from other diseases. The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHHPRA) approved the administration of the booster dose “under certain conditions” for those who have already received two doses of the vaccine.

According to preliminary scientific and medical findings, omicron manages to reduce the antibodies generated by vaccines or previous contagion 41 times compared to the original strain detected in Wuhan almost two years ago. Two doses of the vaccine mean partial protection that prevents hospitalization and severe symptoms, but a third dose restores immunity.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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