Medics and scientists in South Africa have welcomed early hospital data suggesting that the Omicron coronavirus variant could lead to less severe disease than previous waves, but they cautioned that high transmission rates could overwhelm hospitals.
Early data from the Steve Biko and Tshwane Hospital Complex in Pretoria, South Africa, which was at the epicenter of the outbreak, showed that on December 2, only nine of the 42 patients in the Covid-19 ward, all of whom were unvaccinated, were being treated. from the virus and need oxygen.
The rest of the patients have tested positive but are asymptomatic and are being treated for other conditions.
«My colleagues and I have observed this many patients on room air,» said Dr. Farid Abdullah, director of the South African Medical Research Council and an infectious disease physician at Steve Biko Hospital.
“I’ve been to the Covid ward at any time in the last 18 months… You could hear the oxygen coming from the wall outlets, you could hear the ventilators whistling… But now the vast majority of patients are like any other ward.”
The data will reassure global health officials who have been alarmed by South Africa’s rapid rise in infections. But experts cautioned that the sharp increase in cases, linked to the new variant’s apparent ability to evade immune protection from previous infection or vaccination, could overburden hospitals to an extent similar to a summer delta wave.
Meanwhile, concern is growing in neighboring Zimbabwe as rising infection rates begin to test a faltering healthcare system at the first sign of an Omicron wave spreading through the region.
The milder disease pattern in Pretoria is confirmed by data for the entire Gauteng province. Eight percent of hospital patients with Covid are being treated in intensive care units, down from 23 percent across the Delta wave. And only 2 percent use ventilators, down from 11 percent.
Although the total number of patients infected with the Covid virus in Gauteng hospitals is close to the level reached at the same stage of the delta wave, researchers said that a large proportion have received treatment for other cases. The number of Covid patients in intensive care is a quarter of what it was three weeks before the outbreak of Delta disease.
“I am very optimistic,” said Shabbir Madi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, predicting that while there will be a “large number” of infections and infections, a smaller proportion of cases will end. Require hospital treatment.
Anthony Fauci, the top US health official, said on Sunday that early indications about the severity of the variant were «encouraging».
However, the possibility that Omicron will produce less severe symptoms may be more the result of immunity than the virus evolving to become less virulent, according to Professor Richard Lessels, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
Scientists assert that even if the country survived a more deadly species, Omicron infection alone could cause major problems. Weekly hospital admissions for patients infected with the Covid virus across Gauteng county are increasing five times the fastest during a delta wave.
«If it spreads more efficiently, infecting more people in a short period of time, that’s really bad news for your hospitals and health system,» Lessels said.
Hospitals in the city have been preparing for their own wave of Omicron admissions that could match a delta wave after case rates increased sixfold over the past week, said Jantjie Taljaard, an infectious disease physician at Tygerberg Academic Hospital in Cape Town.
Dr Talgaard added that he suspected hospital data from Gauteng «may be a bit skewed» due to infections in the early stages of a wave being more prevalent among young people, who are less likely to develop severe disease.
Across the border in Zimbabwe, health officials are increasingly concerned about how a similar surge could wreak havoc on the country’s health care system, which is less well-resourced compared to its wealthier neighbour.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill patients from the Covid virus in Zimbabwean hospitals, with numbers rising from six to 26 in the seven days to Friday last week, before standing at the same stage of a delta wave in June.
Professor Rashida Ferran, director of a research partnership between a health facility in Zimbabwe and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, noted that infections in Zimbabwe were increasing at the fastest rate «for any point during the pandemic», reflecting the rise in Gauteng.
«This threatens to overwhelm the health care system, much more than what might happen in South Africa,» she said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021
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