The South African Minister of Health has confirmed that omicron is the most transmissible variant of coronavirus to date, but does not appear to be as serious. Minister Dr Joe Phaala said previous concerns that omicron would hospitalize more children appear unfounded.
More than 22,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 in South Africa on Thursday, double the number of daily cases seen last week.
Phaala said on Friday that the omicron variant discovered last month was behind the country’s fourth wave.
He says the omicron has become the dominant variant, spreading faster and overtaking the delta variant.
“The virus’s reproduction number, which shows how many people can be infected by one person, is currently 2.5, which is higher than it was at any previous point in the pandemic. So whether we were talking about alpha, beta, delta, none of them had even come close to both,” he said.
Omicron also appears to infect people who have been vaccinated or have previously been sick with COVID-19.
More than 450 people were hospitalized on Thursday.
But Phaala says early data suggests omicron might not be as severe as previous variants.
“A lower proportion of patients admitted in the fourth wave – this is currently the fourth wave – had serious disease compared to the rate admitted within a similar timeframe in the second and third waves.”
Serious illness is defined as people requiring hospitalization, oxygen or ventilators or dying from the virus.
Officials expressed concern last week over an increase in the number of children hospitalized.
Phaala says it now appears that, like previous variants, omicron does not cause severe respiratory symptoms in children.
“Early data from hospital surveillance, as well as reports from public and private hospitals, indicate that admissions are largely of children admitted for other reasons and then tested positive and for very short durations.”
For average patients, the ministry says anecdotal reports from doctors describe symptoms of omicron as ranging from a scratchy throat, cough and fever to diarrhea and vomiting.
The most serious cases mainly concern the unvaccinated, who represent at least 70% of hospitalizations.
This reinforces the government’s message to the public to get vaccinated.
Dr. Michelle Groome works at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. She notes that “the majority of admissions are to unvaccinated people. I think we really know what public health measures are working in terms of vaccinations, proper wearing of masks, social distancing and limits on large gatherings in particular.
Yet more than half of South African adults have yet to receive their first dose. Phaala had a clear message Friday to those who refuse vaccinations.
“We would like to urge them not to listen to what they read on social media, all the anti-vax stories, protect yourself by showing up and taking the vaccine now.”
Amid the spread of omicron, South Africa now approves booster shots.
Rollout could begin as early as next week for Johnson & Johnson vaccines, while Pfizer boosters will be available from December 28.