The Omicron variant, which officially marked the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, is flattening out after a six-week surge, with South Africa recording a 9% decline in weekly infections.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), hospitalisations have been low and only around 9% of South Africa’s more than 5 600 intensive care unit (ICU) beds are currently occupied by Covid-19 patients.
While deaths rose by 64% across the continent in the past week – mainly due to infections among people at high risk – so far, the number of fatalities recorded in the fourth wave remains lower than those of previous waves.
Giving an update on the state of the variant during a WHO Africa online briefing on Thursday, pulmonologist and intensivist Dr Anita Graham of the University of the Witwatersrand said: “We are definitely experiencing a very large fourth wave of Covid-19 and 95% of all these infections are of the Omicron variant, which is different to what we are seeing in North America.
The WHO reports that in countries experiencing a surge in cases, the fast-spreading Omicron variant has become the dominant type.
It took around four weeks for the Delta variant to surpass the previously dominant Beta, but Omicron outpaced Delta within two weeks in the worst-hit African countries.
“It’s definitely the most contagious variant, with a massive rapid upsurge in cases,” said Graham.
However, despite this massive upsurge in cases and infections “we are definitely also seeing” the least severe of all Covid-19 waves with far fewer hospitalisations and much lower ICU requirements, she added.
“We have got quite a strong pre-existing prevalence of immunity in our population … estimated to be around 70%. This is likely due to previous infections from the second and the third Covid-19 waves, however, we know that this protection wanes over a period of time.”
Graham added that while vaccinations have played a critical role in keeping infection numbers under control, the rate is still low.
According to the health agency, only around 10% of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated, compared with the 50% of the rest of the world’s population.
In South Africa, 27.03% of the population is fully vaccinated.
The WHO says the core objectives of Covid-19 vaccination are to limit severe infections and deaths as well as to safeguard hospitals and health workers from being overwhelmed by surging infections.
At the current rate, Africa is running too far behind.
“Early indications suggest that Africa’s fourth wave has been steep and brief but no less destabilising,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.
“The crucial pandemic countermeasure badly needed in Africa still stands, and that is rapidly and significantly increasing Covid-19 vaccinations.
“The next wave might not be so forgiving,” she warned.
“This year should mark a turning point in Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination drive. With vast swathes of the population still unvaccinated, our chances of limiting the emergence and impact of deadly variants are frighteningly slim.
“We have the know-how and the tools and with a concerted push, we can certainly tip the balance against the pandemic.”
Wednesday’s Covid-19 update indicates that 6 762 new cases had been identified in South Africa, bringing the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases to 3 540 891.
The WHO reports that 30 African countries and at least 142 globally have detected the Omicron variant thus far. The Delta variant has been reported in 42 countries in Africa.
Palesa Mofokeng is a Moneyweb intern.