Omicron variant: contaminations soar in South Africa

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A man gets vaccinated against Covid-19 in Soweto, South Africa on November 29, 2021.

“There is no reason to panic, this is not unfamiliar territory. We have more than twenty months of experience in dealing with the pandemic, the different waves and the different variants. ” Like President Cyril Ramaphosa the day before, South African Minister of Health Joe Phaahla called for composure in the face of the emergence of the Omicron variant, during a press conference on Monday, November 29.

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There is only one certainty at this stage: contamination is increasing very quickly. “I think we are all in awe of how fast the numbers are climbing, knowing that we had very few transmissions just a week ago”, underlines the epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, specialist in infectious diseases often compared, at the time when he headed the ministerial advisory committee to fight against the South African Covid-19, to the American doctor Anthony Fauci.

In mid-November, South Africa had less than three hundred new daily infections on a weekly average, its lowest level since the start of the pandemic. The average has climbed to nearly two thousand over the past week, and Professor Abdool Karim expects the country to exceed ten thousand infections per day by the end of the week, as the rate of test positivity rose from around 2% to over 10% in a week – it peaks at over 35% among 10-14 year olds in Gauteng province, home of the new infections. At the head of the team that identified the new variant, bioinformatician and virologist Tulio de Oliveira estimates that it already dominates 90% of infections in this province.

Young people more affected, and less vaccinated

The speed of propagation of this new wave suggests a strong contagiousness of the Omicron, as already suggested by the profile of certain mutations. Is it all the more dangerous? Several general practitioners in the Gauteng region pointed out that it only appeared to cause mild symptoms. Doctor Unben Pillay thus evokes a dry cough, fever, night sweats, “In line with this [qu’ils ont ] seen in previous waves ”. Most “It is still very early”, he said, to draw conclusions.

At this stage, nearly 60% of patients with Covid-19 admitted to hospital do not have severe symptoms

If he confirms that no worrying sign has been observed for the moment, Doctor Abdool Karim qualifies the observations of certain doctors who assure that the new variant would rather affect young people: “Young people are less vaccinated, it is obvious that they represent more cases, but we do not have a reliable clinical picture at this stage. “ South African epidemiological data confirms that the majority of contaminations currently concern those under 25, who are more likely to congregate, particularly at the end of the school and university year when there are more festivals in southern Africa.

The increase in contamination was thus first observed among students from the municipality of Tshwane, which includes the South African capital Pretoria, before spreading among the youngest, then reaching the older population groups, the latter. days. As a logical consequence, very few elderly people are hospitalized at this stage, and nearly 60% of patients with Covid-19 admitted to hospital do not have severe symptoms. The proportion of severe cases, lower than that observed in previous waves, can also be explained by the progression of vaccination in South Africa.

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If the profile of certain mutations already present for other variants suggests that the virus could partly escape the antibodies resulting from a first infection or vaccination, Professor Abdool Karim believes that the probable scenario is “That vaccines should continue to prevent severe forms of the disease”. It will take a month, he adds, before knowing precisely the ability of vaccines to protect against infections and severe forms of Covid-19. In Tshwane, for the moment, nearly 90% of patients admitted to hospital are not vaccinated.

Different circumstances in Europe

Should we expect to see the number of contaminations explode in Europe in the same way as in South Africa? “The Omicron appeared in South Africa at a time when the circulation of the Delta was very calm, and the last epidemic wave quite distant – hence a greatly diminished natural immunity in people who had been infected”, says Arnaud Fontanet, member of the French scientific council and head of the epidemiology of emerging diseases laboratory at the Institut Pasteur, in Paris, during a press conference on Monday.

“The circumstances of the emergence and circulation of the Omicron virus in South Africa are therefore not the same as what they could be in Europe, which is facing a wave of [du] Very important delta ”, adds the expert, who also points out that South Africa’s vaccination coverage is relatively low – 35% of the adult population is vaccinated. In this context, it will only be possible in the coming weeks to determine the outcome of the competition between the two variants, explains Dr Fontanet.

The epidemiologist from the Institut Pasteur also congratulated South Africa for the speed with which the country made public the identification of the variant. “He should not be ‘punished’ for being so transparent”, he underlines, worried, like others, of the risk of seeing certain nations keep their discoveries to themselves in the future, given the economic sanctions currently hitting South Africa.

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Similarly commended by US Secretary of Health Xavier Becerra, Mr. Phaahla curtly greeted this praise crowned with retribution. “Tell your president that travel bans are not helping us and that they contradict the idea that the US government supports the approach we have taken”, assures to have answered Mr. Phaahla to his counterpart.

Faced with the Omicron variant, the Merck laboratory confident in its antiviral

The Merck group estimated, Monday, November 29, that its antiviral, Molnupiravir, “Will probably be active against the Omicron variant”. To justify this confidence, the pharmaceutical group does not rely on specific studies, still in the pipeline, but on the mode of action of its pill, which attacks the basic building blocks of the virus genome. It also highlights the effectiveness encountered against three other variants, Gamma, Delta and Mu. However, this efficiency, precisely, has been revised downwards.

The pharmacy giant announced Friday, November 26, that the final results of its trial concluded at an effectiveness of 30% and not 48%, as initially announced, on the basis of preliminary data. This information should weigh in the process currently underway at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Experts from the American health agency had recommended, last week, an approval of Merck’s treatment intended to prevent severe forms of Covid-19. But the real review will be held on Tuesday, before the committee of independent experts tasked with informing the direction of the FDA. And with the new numbers.

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Omicron variant: contaminations soar in South Africa