Omicron Set for ‘Strongest’ Transmission in South Africa


The omicron coronavirus variant is spreading faster in Gauteng, the epicenter of the latest outbreak in South Africa, than the delta strain or any of the earlier mutations, an adviser to the provincial government said. 

There is the “strongest acceleration in community transmission ever seen in South Africa,” Bruce Mellado, the adviser, said in a presentation on Thursday. This is “consistent with dominance of a variant that is more transmissible,” he said.

South Africa announced the discovery of a new variant, later named omicron, on Nov. 25 as cases began to spike and the strain spread across the globe. National daily cases almost doubled on Wednesday, days after countries across the world halted flights to and from southern Africa.

Still previous infections and the fact that about a quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated may blunt its impact, Mellado said. He uses modeling to predict the trajectory of infections.

Government scientists and actuaries at private companies have estimated that between 60% and 80% of South Africans were infected in earlier waves of the virus.

“Omicron seems to be moving at a faster speed than Delta, but at the same time what seems to be happening is that our hospitalization rate is somewhat more muted,” said Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand. “I’m optimistic that in this resurgence, while the total number of cases will probably be greater, hospitalizations and deaths will be lower.”

Greater Susceptibility

While previous infections and vaccinations may prevent serious illness, authorities have noticed higher level of “reinfections,” which means “susceptibility of the population is greater,” Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said during a World Health Organization briefing on Thursday.

Active cases in Gauteng will likely peak in coming weeks at about 40,000, as opposed to more than 100,000 during the third wave in the middle of this year, Mellado said. Hospitalizations due to Covid-19 will likely rise to about 4,000 compared with 9,500 in the third wave, he said.

A quarter of South Africa’s 60 million people live in Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.