Less serious Omicron cases spark cautious optimism in South Africa

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.

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