As the unrelenting march across the world continues for the new and highly mutated Omicron coronavirus variant, the country where the strain was first detected about a month ago—South Africa—is somewhat surprisingly already witnessing a falling number of cases.
New data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) is showing that just over eight thousand five hundred people have tested positive for Omicron in the past day, which was markedly down from nearly fourteen thousand a week ago.
In another sign that the Omicron wave is quickly fading, hospitalizations have fallen sharply as well. NICD data have revealed that the number of people in hospitals with the virus has plummeted by roughly twenty-five percent to five thousand six hundred over the past week.
The fast-sinking figures are seemingly supporting recent reports that suggest that the variant may not be as severe as other forms of coronavirus. However, the variant is known to feature more than thirty mutations to the spike protein, which help it achieve higher transmissibility rates.
Previous Infections Helping?
“It really does seem as if … my country will escape relatively unscathed in this wave,” said Professor Tom Moultrie, a top demographer at the University of Cape Town, per The Telegraph.
However, he asserted that South Africa’s current experience with the variant might be shaped by the nation’s “horrendous” pandemic-driven death toll and increased immunity among the population.
“What if South Africa’s ‘light escape’… is because we ‘bought’ that present at horrendous cost during past waves,” Moultrie said.
The country of sixty million has seen more than two hundred seventy thousand excess deaths—the number of fatalities above the average of pre-pandemic years—since the pandemic started nearly two years ago, according to the South African Medical Research Council.
Dr. Gottlieb’s Take
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reiterated that the Omicron is potentially not as severe as other variants.
“There’s no indication that it causes more severe illness,” he told CBS News on Sunday.
“What we’ve seen in South Africa in particular, is a decoupling between the cases and hospitalizations,” he continued.
Gottlieb added that the reason Omicron is “manifesting as a less severe illness is probably because we have baseline immunity in the population,” noting that 80 percent of those in the United States and 90 percent of South Africans “have some level of immunity” from inoculation or previous infection.
“We have some baseline immunity that protects us from getting very sick,” he claimed.
“And that’s in fact what you’re probably seeing in terms of these hospitalization statistics,” he concluded.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.