Leading scientists in South Africa have warned that it is still too early to determine that the omicron variant will cause only a mild disease.
The true impact of the coronavirus strain is currently difficult to determine, as it has so far mostly affected young people, who are better able to fight the pathogen, and people tend to get sick after carrying the virus for some time. The scientists said in a presentation to lawmakers on Wednesday.
Earlier, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases reported that the daily number of new confirmed cases in South Africa had almost doubled to 8,561 infections in the last 24 hours. Omicron is now by far the dominant strain in the country.
The latest infections have occurred “especially in younger age groups, but we are beginning to see this movement in older age groups,” Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the NICD, told lawmakers. “We also expect that more severe complications may not occur for a few weeks.”
On November 25, the South African government and scientists announced that a new variant, later dubbed omicron by the World Health Organization, had been found in the country. This triggered a stock market sale and led to the imposition of travel bans on several South African countries.
Richard Lessells, a specialist in infectious diseases at the KRISP Institute of Genomics, said that the severity of the disease caused by the new strain could be masked by the fact that many people have already contracted or inoculated, giving them some immunity.
“If this virus and this variant spreads very effectively through the population, then it will still be able to find those people in the population who are unvaccinated and who may be unprotected against severe diseases,” he said. “That’s what worries us when we’re thinking about the continent in general.”
The vaccination rate in South Africa is low compared to Western countries and China, but it is well above most African nations, with about a quarter of the population completely inoculated. On the continent of 1.3 billion people, only 6.7% are fully vaccinated, only 0.1% of the 100 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have received their vaccines.
Even so, Lessells expects that while the variant may avoid antibodies, the body’s other defense systems, such as T cells, may still be effective. T cells kill infected cells.
“We expect the protection you have against severe diseases to be much more difficult for this option,” he told lawmakers. “We do not expect this to have any effect on the therapy we use.”
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