South African coronavirus surges from omicron version

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa is experiencing a surge in new COVID-19 cases driven by two omicron sub-variants, according to health experts.

For about three weeks, the country has seen an increase in the number of new cases and hospitalizations, but not in severe cases and deaths, said Professor Marta Nunes, a researcher in vaccine and infectious disease analysis at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

“We’re still in the early stages of this growth period, so I don’t want to really call it a wave,” Nunes said. “We’re seeing a slight increase in hospitalizations and really very few deaths.”

New cases in South Africa have risen from an average of 300 a day in early April to around 8,000 a day this week. Nunes said the actual number of new cases is likely much higher because symptoms are mild and many people who are sick are not being tested.

The new surge in South Africa comes from two variants of omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which appear to be very similar to the original strain of omicron first discovered in South Africa and Botswana late last year and sweeping the globe.

“Most new cases come from these two strains. They’re still omicrons … but only differ genomically,” Nunes said. The newer versions appear to be able to infect people who are immune to early COVID infection and vaccination, but they usually cause mild disease, she said. In South Africa, 45% of adults are fully vaccinated, although some 85% of the population is believed to have some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.

“It still looks like a vaccine can prevent serious disease,” Nunes said.

BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron have spread to other countries in southern Africa and some European countries, but it is too early to tell whether they will spread globally like omicron, Nunes said.

An increase in COVID cases is coming as South Africa enters a colder winter in the southern hemisphere and flu cases are rising in the country.

At a COVID-19 testing center in the Chiavelo region of Soweto, many people came in to be tested for the virus only to be found to have the flu.

“Right now we’re in flu season…so it’s flu versus COVID-19,” said Magdeline Matsoso, field manager at the Chiawelo Vaccination Center. She said people came for testing because they had coronavirus symptoms.

“When we test, you find that most of them are negative for COVID, but they do have flu symptoms,” Massoso said. “So they were treated for the flu and then went home because most were related to the flu, not COVID.”

Vuyo Lumkwani was one of those who came to be tested.

“I woke up this morning feeling sick. I woke up with body pain, headache, stuffy nose, dizziness, so I decided to come here,” she said.

“I was terrified of my symptoms because I thought it might be COVID-19, but I told myself I would be fine because I was vaccinated,” Lumkwani said. She said she was relieved to have been diagnosed with the flu and advised her to take some medicine and go home to rest.

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