Just the past week, the entire world was made aware of a new COVID strain which was first discovered in South Africa.
The revelation was made by Dr. Sikhulile Moyo when analyzing COVID-19 samples in his lab in Botswana where he noticed that the new samples looked different from others he’d worked on.
According to new reports, the number of cases in South Africa has since surged from just 200 a day to about 16,000 on Friday.
The Omicron strain was discovered in the Gauteng, the country’s most populous province and it has since spread to other eight provinces according to the country’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla.
Despite the high number of cases being reported, the number of cases are said to still be under 25,000 daily unlike previous surge i the number cases earlier in the year.
Since the new Omicron variant is newly discovered, there is little information available about the strain. One thing researchers are finding compelling is how fast others caught the strain giving the hint that the strain might be more infectious compared to other strains.
Omicron has over 50 mutations and scientists have called it a big jump in the evolution of the virus since it was first recorded in its original state nearly two years ago.
Also, researchers aren’t clear whether the new strain will cause serious illness or whether the current vaccines are able to protect against it.
However, Phaahla made it known that only a small number of people who have been vaccinated have gotten sick most of which are even mild cases while the majority of those who have been hospitalized were not vaccinated.
But in a worrisome development, South African scientists reported that omicron appears more likely than earlier variants to cause reinfections among people who have already had a bout with COVID-19.
“Previous infection used to protect against delta, and now with omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case,” one of the researchers, Anne von Gottberg of the University of Witwatersrand, said at a World Health Organization briefing on Thursday.
Although the study didn’t examine the protection offered by the vaccines, von Gottberg stated that he believe the vaccines will still offer some protection and prevent people having severe illnesses from the disease.
The findings, posted online Thursday, are preliminary and haven’t yet undergone scientific review.
Even though the number of cases has risen, South African hospitals are reportedly coping with the the number of cases according to Phaahla.
Moyo, who may have been the first person to discover the new strain hoped that vaccines would provide adequate protection against the new variant.
One of the biggest fear so far is the fact that majority of those infected so far with the new variant are younger people who don’t usually get sick compared to older patients which is why there is the need to further hasten the vaccination process to reach as many people as possible in the country.
“I have a lot of hope from the data that we see that those vaccinated should be able to have a lot of protection,” Moyo said.
That dovetails with what officials from WHO in Asia said Friday.
While warning that cases could well rise quickly because of omicron, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said the measures used against the delta variant — which itself caused surges the world over — should remain at the core of the response.
“The positive news in all of this is that none of the information we have currently about omicron suggests we need to change the directions of our response,” Kasai said.
A push for a higher vaccination rates as well as obeying the social-distancing guidelines, wearing face masks and other hygienic practices can help lower the chances of catching the new strain according to WHO Regional Emergency Director Dr. Babatunde Olowokure.
So far, Omicron is said to have spread to over 24 countries worldwide including the United States even though the numbers overseas are much smaller compared to that of South Africa, many foreign countries has since placed a travel restriction on a number of countries in southern Africa.
The move is said to help WHO buy time in order to figure out what the new variant is before it devastating menace globally.
South Africa however is totally against the travel ban placed against its residents saying it’s being punished for being transparent and moving quickly to alert the world about the new Omicron variant.
WHO said it was notified by the country on Nov. 24 about the new variant.
“What we must reemphasize is that while our scientists and those in Botswana were the first discover and report on the variant, no one knows where it originated,” Phaahla said.