Scientists and policy makers in South Africa and across the region are cautiously optimistic that the rapidly spreading Omicron variant is not going to cause a bloodbath as, so far, no deaths have been linked to the new Covid mutation.
Despite a record number of new infections – more than 40,000 people tested positive in the last five days – a new study reported in South Africa media this morning further confirms Omicron is a relatively mild variant.
The research, conducted by the Steve Biko/Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, found that Omicron-linked patients merely experience mild symptoms, with Dr Fareed Abdullah, who led the study, explaining to several media, including the New York Times, that by far most patients did not need supplemental oxygen.
Other hospitals and medics are reporting similar findings and, so far, no deaths have directly been linked to the new Omicron variant.
Moreover, Dr Abdullah’s team found that the average time they stayed at the hospital was only three days, far below the average 8.5 days for Covid patients throughout the pandemic so far.
WHO not linking Omicron to any deaths
The World Health Organisation also acknowledged it has, so far, been unable to link any Covid deaths to the new variant. The health body confirmed Omicron cases have been detected in 38 countries but, so far, none of have reported deaths as a result of the Covid mutation.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan urged people no longer to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and stressed it was “too early to say” if Covid-19 vaccines need to be modified.
Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference over the weekend that “the right response is to be prepared and cautious and not to panic in face of the new variant.”
Despite the mild symptoms and low death rate, infection rates are shooting up.
According to John Hopkins University data, South Africa had more than 107,000 new Covid cases in the last three weeks, with 40,000 new cases in the last five days, according to South Afrcia’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases.
Omicron’s R rate 2.5x higher than Delta
The infection v death ratio increasingly confirms the belief that the Omicron variant is much more contagious and dominant than Delta, but also much milder and less deadly.
In fact, a new analysis, published over the weekend, showed that Omicron is spreading twice as quickly as the Delta variant.
Scientists of the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium team, led by Carl Pearson, a mathematical modeller at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that – by looking at Covid cases across South Africa’s nine provinces – the Omicron variant’s R value is nearly 2.5 times higher than that of Delta.
Variwith around 90 per cent of all new infections in the Johannesburg area now said to be the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus, which means the previously dominant but much more lethal Delta mutation is being pushed aside.
Some experts are therefore even urging countries to drop restrictions and let Omicron spread so the more infectious but less severe variant can kill off Delta quicker.
Omicron evades immunity
One thing that does concern the WHO and medical scientists, however, is a new study in South Africa has found that the new Omicron variant has “substantial” ability to re-infect people who previously had Covid-19 simply because it is able to evade immunity systems in people’s bodies.
The study estimated that the risk of reinfection for November 1 to 27, when Omicron started circulating, was 2.39 times higher than in the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020.
In contrast, the risk of reinfection in South Africa was lower in the Beta and Delta waves than in the first wave.
The findings suggest Omicron could cause a wave of infections in people with some prior immunity.
The authors concluded: “Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection. In contrast, there is no population-wide epidemiological evidence of immune escape associated with the Beta or Delta variants.”
The NCID study comes shortly after Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, regional emergency director for the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Africa, told a press briefing last week week there are concerns about reinfections.
“We are seeing an increase for Omicron. And that speaks to the fact that in our population with a high seroprevalence – so where many people have had previous infection – we believe that their previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron,” she explained.
She added that the susceptibility of the population of South Africa “is greater now because previous infection used to protect against Delta and now with Omicron and doesn’t seem to be the case”.
“We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease because we’ve seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants – the vaccines have always held out to prevent severe disease and admission into hospital from death.”
Complex level of mutations
Discussing the Omicron variant and its suspected ability to evade immunity systems, Professor Francois Balloux, from University College London (UCL), said the findings were not surprising given the number of mutations in the new variant.
“The [NCID] study is competently performed and highly timely as it provides the first direct evidence for the increased ability of the Omicron variant to partially bypass prior host immunity conferred by prior infection.”
“Risk of reinfection by the Omicron variant was estimated to be around three times higher than by the Alpha and Delta variant,” Balloux said.
He pointed out that South Africa has a low vaccination rate and a large proportion of the population has been infected during previous Covid-19 waves.
Moreover, the population of South Africa is fairly young with a median age of 27.6 years.
“As such, the results from this study are not directly portable to other settings such as Europe or North America, and more data will be needed before we can make more any robust prediction about the potential threat posed by a global spread of the Omicron variant in different parts of the world,” Balloux concluded.
With regards to vaccines, most pharmaceutical giants have said they have started to tweak vaccines in order to make them ‘Omicron-proof’.
Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of Omicron and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern. This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg (microgram) booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”
Travel restrictions worldwide
Many have praised South Africa for detecting the Omicron variant and for alerting the WHO so quickly, although the news did cause mass hysteria around the world.
Within hours after the news about the variant first broke, the UK shut its borders for travellers from Southern Africa and added South Africa and a range of other countries to its notorious red list. This decision was rapidly followed by the EU, US and Israel.
However, a ban on new incoming flight bookings in Japan was partly dropped late last week. The strict policy, aimed at halting the new Omicron variant, had only come into force a day earlier.
Last Thursday, the transport ministry issued a request to international airlines to stop taking new reservations for flights coming into Japan until the end of December as an emergency precaution to defend against Omicron.
This was retracted, however, a day later after receiving criticisms from inside and outside the country.
“The transport ministry has retracted the request for a uniformed stoppage on new bookings and notified airlines,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters in Tokyo.
In addition to Japan’s decision, the WHO has also urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the Omicron variant.
In fact, the WHO fiercely lashed out at the UK and other countries, calling their response “extreme.”
Dr Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, said “these types of interventions are not sustainable. Those types of extreme measures are not our recommendations.”
The WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries “to follow science” and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.
“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the international health regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognised by over 190 nations,” Dr Moeti added.
While further investigations continue into the Omicron variant, the WHO recommends that all countries “take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread”.
Nevertheless, nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5m lives around the world, countries remain on high alert. Experts have also pointed out more testing needs to be carried out to draw firm conclusions with regards to the Omicron variant.