‘A huge concern’: South Africa scientists scramble to combat spread of Omicron variant

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As the world grapples with the emergence of a new highly permeable version of COVID-19, concerned scientists in South Africa – where Omicron was first identified – are scrambling to combat its lightning that spread across the country .

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In the span of two weeks, the Omicron version has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to a rapid growth of new confirmed cases. The country’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases reported on Friday, but Omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has worried health professionals.

“We are seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Rudo Mathiva, head of the intensive care unit at Bargavnath Hospital in Soweto, said at an online press briefing.

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“Young people, in their late 20s into their 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe illness, some requiring intensive care. About 65% have not been vaccinated and only half of the rest have been vaccinated,” Mathiva said. “I worry that as numbers rise, public health care facilities will be overwhelmed.”

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He said there is an urgent need for preparedness to enable public hospitals to deal with a potentially large influx of patients requiring intensive care.

“We know we have a new version,” Mathiva said. “Worst case scenario it hits us like a delta… we need to prepare critical care beds.”

Pretoria had what looked like a cluster infection among some university students, with hundreds of new cases and then thousands, first in the capital city and then in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

Studying the increase, scientists identified the new type, which clinical trials indicate is responsible for 90% of new cases, according to South African health officials. Preliminary studies suggest it has a fertility rate of 2 – meaning that each person infected with it has the potential to spread to two other people.

The new variant has a large number of mutations that make it more permeable and help it evade immune reactions. The World Health Organization looked at the data on Friday and named the variant Omicron under its system of using Greek letters, calling it a highly permeable version of the concern.

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“It’s a big concern. We are all very concerned about this virus,” Professor Willem Hannekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, told the Associated Press.

“This variant is mostly in Gauteng province, Johannesburg region of South Africa. But we have found clues from diagnostic tests … which suggest that this variant is already in the whole of South Africa,” said Hannekom, who runs the South African COVID Variant Research Consortium is also the co-chairman of.

“The scientific response from within South Africa is that we need to learn as soon as possible. We know precious little,” he said. “For example, we do not know how virulent this virus is, which means How bad is this disease?”

An important factor is vaccination. The new version appears to be spreading most rapidly in people who have not been vaccinated. Currently, only about 40% of adult South Africans are vaccinated, and the number is much lower in people aged 20 to 40.

South Africa has about 20 million doses of vaccines made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – but the number of people receiving the vaccine is about 120,000 per day, far short of the government’s target of 300,000 per day.

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Henekom said that as scientists try to learn more about Omicron, South Africans can take measures to protect themselves against it.

“This is a unique opportunity. There is still time for those who have not vaccinated and received the vaccine, and it will provide some protection, we believe, against this infection, especially severe infection, serious illness and death.” protection against,” he said. “So I would call on people to get vaccinated if they can.”

Some typical South Africans have more worldly concerns about the new version.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, so I’m concerned about further restrictions,” said Tebogo Letlapa in Davitan, east Johannesburg. “I am especially concerned about the closure of liquor sales as it is almost the festive season.”

AP journalist Mogomotsi Magom contributed from Johannesburg.

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