South Africa is seeing another surge of COVID-19 cases, after the number of new positive infections reported in the region had continued its downward trend despite increased testing, according to South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) data.
The NICD on Dec. 14 reported 23,884 new COVID-19 cases in South Africa, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 3,204,742. The figure represented a 34.9 percent positivity rate, the institute said, noting that there had been an increase of 599 hospital admissions in the past 24 hours.
Just days earlier, on Dec. 11, the NICD reported 17,154 new cases, which was nearly 2,000 down from the 19,018 new cases reported on the day before. Similarly, while the number of daily hospital admissions saw an upward trend from 374 new admissions on Dec. 8 to 507 new admissions on Dec. 10, it dropped to 184 new admissions on Dec. 11.
The abrupt downward trend last week amid the outbreak of the Omicron variant of the new coronavirus in South Africa was described by Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, as “one of the most mind-boggling things I’ve ever seen during my career as an infectious disease epidemiologist.”
“We are cautiously optimistic that deaths and severe illness will remain low in the current wave,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa. “But slow vaccine roll-out in Africa means both will be much higher than they should be.”
The WHO noted that while hospitalizations have increased by 67 percent in South Africa in the past seven days, the bed occupancy rate for Intensive Care Units remains low at 7.5 percent, with 14 percent of the hospitalized patients receiving supplemental oxygen.
“Though the deaths also remain low, this data should be interpreted with caution as the pattern may change in the coming weeks,” it said.
“We’ve known for quite some time now that new variants like Beta, Delta or Omicron could regularly emerge to spark new outbreaks globally, but vaccine-deprived regions like Africa will be especially vulnerable,” added Moeti.
Meanwhile, a new study of real-world data from South Africa found that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has been less effective in protecting against hospitalization following the emergency of the Omicron virus variant.
According to Discovery Health, the largest private health insurance company in the country, the protection from the vaccine’s primary two-dose regimen has dropped to about 70 percent in recent weeks.
That was down from 93 percent when Delta was the dominant variant in the country, Discovery scientists said Tuesday. Discovery’s analysis has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Pfizer and BioNTech did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Omicron was first detected by South African scientists last month and genomic sequencing of past positive tests show it dates back to at least October in Nigeria.
The WHO said in a technical brief issued on Dec. 12 that the variant, which has been reported in more than 60 countries so far, poses a “very high” global risk, but further research is needed to assess its severity.
Zachary Stieber and Tammy Hung contributed to this report.