AS the world grapples with the emergence of the new highly transmissible variant of Covid-19, worried scientists in South Africa – where Omicron was first identified – have been scrambling to combat its lightning spread across the country.
‘We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with Covid-19,’ Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing on Saturday.
‘Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care.’
‘About 65 percent are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,’ said Mathivha. ‘I’m worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed.’
She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potential large influx of patients needing intensive care.
‘We know we have a new variant,’ said Mathivha. ‘The worst case scenario is that it hits us like delta … we need to have critical care beds ready.’
Responsible for majority of new cases
In the space of two weeks, the Omicron variant has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to rapid growth of new confirmed cases.
The country’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded Friday, but Omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.
Studying the surge, scientists identified the new variant that diagnostic tests indicate is likely responsible for as many as 90 percent of the new cases, according to South Africa’s health officials.
Early studies show that it has a reproduction rate of 2 — meaning that every person infected by it is likely to spread it to two other people.
The new variant has a high number of mutations that appear to make it more transmissible and help it evade immune responses.
A key factor is vaccination. The new variant appears to be spreading most quickly among those who are unvaccinated.
Currently, only about 40 percent of adult South Africans are vaccinated, and the number is much lower among those in the 20 to 40-year-old age group.
South Africa has nearly 20 million doses of vaccines — made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — but the numbers of people getting vaccines is about 120,000 per day, far below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.