SOUTH Africa’s Covid cases are expected to top 10,000 per day by the end of this week due to the super strain Omicron, a leading epidemiologist has said.
It would mean the nation has seen a surge in cases of 9,900 per cent in the space of just three weeks, instilling fear into the rest of the world.
Officials are working to stall the seeding of Omicron in other nations, with border closures and quarantine rules.
But already it has popped up in a dozen countries, as expected, including in the UK where nine cases have been detected.
The variant is thought to be faster spreading than Delta - which is currently the most dominant strain globally.
It may also evade immunity from prior infection or vaccination, making more people susceptible to infection.
In South Africa, the Omicron epicentre, cases have already soared several-fold since the alarm was raised about a new and deeply worrying variant.
Some 3,220 new cases were reported on Saturday and 2,858 new cases on Sunday.
On November 15, two weeks ago today, only 137 cases were reported in the nation, according to Worldometer.
But by Sunday, they could be 100 times higher than that, Dr Salim Abdool Karim, a South African public health and infectious diseases specialist, told an online health ministry press briefing.
“We can expect that higher transmissibility is likely and so we are going to get more cases quickly,” he said.
“I am expecting we will top over 10,000 cases by the end of the week per day (and) pressure on hospitals within the next two, three weeks.”
The Omicron variant already makes up the majority of cases in some South Africa provinces - such as 90 per cent in Gauteng, the nation’s most populous province and the epicentre of the new outbreak.
It means the strain could be fuelling some thousands of cases per day already, health chiefs suggest.
Hospital admissions more than doubled over the past month in Gauteng, according to official figures.
But there is no evidence, at this stage, the variant causes more severe disease, with experts saying cases appear to be mild at this stage.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said there was "absolutely no need to panic”.
"We have been here before," he said, referring to the Beta variant identified in South Africa last December.
Although the country’s outbreak is projected to worsen severely in the coming days, it’s not clear how Omicron will behave in other nations.
Each country has a completely different “epidemiological picture”, based on its vaccine rates, level of natural immunity, age demographics and more.
In South Africa, only a quarter of people are double vaccinated compared with the UK’s 80 per cent, where millions of people have also had a booster dose.
While vaccines will offer a huge barrier against Omicron, the concern is that its mutations will allow it to weaken the jab’s efficacy.
Experts say it is “almost certain” it will be able to evade immunity to some extent. This would impact hospitalisation rates.
We will see increasing numbers of cases infected with the Omicron variant over the coming days [in the UK]Prof Lawrence Young
It comes as the UK’s cases of Omicron have risen to nine, with six cases reported by Scotland this morning.
Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor, University of Cambridge, said “it means that transmission here in the UK is happening”.
Prof Lawrence Young, Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, said: “We will see increasing numbers of cases infected with the Omicron variant over the coming days.
“Once a variant is identified, particularly one that is likely to be more infectious, it will have spread far beyond the few original cases and countries.
“That’s the nature of infectious disease in a world where international travel is so common.”
The UK is currently recording around 42,000 per day, of which the almost all are caused by Delta.
The total number of cases in the past seven days (305,656) is up 6.4 per cent on the week prior.
However, due to the repeated ups and downs over the past several weeks, the rate is generally stable, England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said on Saturday.
At the Downing Street press briefing, he said it was “inevitable” the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days.
While it is clear Omicron is highly transmissible, it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against it – but Prof Whitty said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the country needs to “face up” to the possibility the variant will be a “major issue” if it turns out to be highly-transmissible and evades immunity.
Some experts compared it to the Beta variant, which originated in South Africa in late 2020, which saw vaccine efficacy reduced by 30 to 40 per cent.
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