Omicron-stricken South Africa may be a glimpse into the future

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Dr. Sikhulile Moyo was analyzing COVID-19 samples in his lab in Botswana last week when he noticed they looked startlingly different from others.

Within days, the world was ablaze with the news that the coronavirus had a new variant of concern — one that appears to be driving a dramatic surge in South Africa and offering a glimpse of where the pandemic might be headed.

New COVID-19 cases in South Africa have burgeoned from about 200 a day in mid-November to more than 16,000 on Friday. Omicron was detected over a week ago in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, and has since spread to all eight other provinces, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Even with the rapid increase, infections are still below the 25,000 new daily cases that South Africa reported in the previous surge, in June and July.

Little is known about the new variant, but the spike in South Africa suggests it might be more contagious, said Moyo, the scientist who may have been the first to identify the new variant, though researchers in neighboring South Africa were close on his heels. Omicron has more than 50 mutations, and scientists have called it a big jump in the evolution of the virus.

It’s not clear if the variant causes more serious illness or can evade the protection of vaccines. Phaahla noted that only a small number of people who have been vaccinated have gotten sick, mostly with mild cases, while the vast majority of those who have been hospitalized were not vaccinated.

But in a worrisome development, South African scientists reported that omicron appears more likely than earlier variants to cause reinfections among people who have already had a bout with COVID-19.

“Previous infection used to protect against delta, and now with omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case,” one of the researchers, Anne von Gottberg of the University of Witwatersrand, said at a World Health Organization briefing on Thursday.

While the study did not examine the protection offered by vaccination, von Gottberg said: “We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease.”

The findings, posted online Thursday, are preliminary and haven’t yet undergone scientific review.

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