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South Africa in new surge of COVID from versions of omicron

Published:Saturday | May 14, 2022 | 10:14 AM
People queue at a COVID-19 testing centre in Soweto, South Africa, Wednesday, May 11, 2022. Health experts in South Africa say the country is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by two omicron sub-variants. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by two omicron sub-variants, according to health experts.

For about three weeks the country has seen increasing numbers of new cases and somewhat higher hospitalisations, but no increases in severe cases and deaths, said Professor Marta Nunes, a researcher at Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Analytics at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

“We're still very early in this increase period, so I don't want to really call it a wave,” Nunes said.

“We are seeing a slight, a small increase in hospitalisations and really very few deaths.”

South Africa's new cases have gone from an average of 300 per day in early April to about 8,000 per day this week. Nunes says the actual number of new cases is probably much higher because the symptoms are mild and many who get sick are not getting tested.

South Africa's new surge is from two variations of omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which appear to be very much like the original strain of omicron that was first identified in South Africa and Botswana late last year and swept around the globe.

“The majority of new cases are from these two strains. They are still omicron ... but just genomically somewhat different,” said Nunes.

The new versions appear to be able to infect people who have immunity from earlier COVID infections and vaccinations but they cause generally mild disease, she said. In South Africa, 45% of adults are fully vaccinated, although about 85% of the population is thought to have some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.

“It looks like the vaccines still protect against severe disease,” Nunes said.

Nunes said that the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron have spread to other countries in southern Africa and a few European countries, but it is too early to tell if they will spread across the globe, as omicron did.

The increase in COVID cases is coming as South Africa is entering the Southern Hemisphere's colder winter months and the country is seeing a rise in cases of flu.

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