South Africa's Omicron-fuelled wave of infections has soared fivefold in a week and test positivity continues to climb, as health officials confirm the super mutant strain is dominant.
Data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows 11,535 new Covid cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, a jump of 368 per cent on last Thursday when 2,465 new infections were registered.
Cases have been soaring in the country since Omicron emerged, which experts say appears to be more infectious than Delta and has mutations that may allow it to dodge vaccine protection.
Some 51,402 people in the country took a Covid test and 22.4 per cent of them tested positive for the virus. For comparison, 38,075 per cent of tests taken on the same day last week and 6.5 per cent were positive.
Meanwhile, Covid hospital admissions nearly tripled in a week, but deaths have fallen 64 per cent.
But despite fears about Omicron, South Africa is still recording far fewer overall Covid cases compared to its population size than both the UK and US.
Figures from the Oxford University research platform Our World in Data show South Africa has 63 cases per million people compared to 638 in the UK and 257 in the US. Cases are rising sharply in South Africa but are starting at a low base.
And just a quarter of South Africans have had two Covid vaccine doses, which makes interpreting the data challenging. For comparison, 70 per cent of people in the UK are double-jabbed and the figure is as high as 80 per cent in some European nations.
Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at the NICD, revealed at a World Health Organization conference today the variant was behind 75 per cent of cases nationally and it 'does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country'.
Five of the country's nine provinces have confirmed Omicron cases and officials expect its prevalence to be high in the remaining four areas where positive samples have not yet been sequenced. There have only been 183 confirmed cases of the strain because only a handful of positive samples are analysed for variants.
It comes amid contradictory reports on whether Omicron causes mild or severe illness and what impact it will have on vaccine effectiveness. Experts warn current findings are anecdotal and it will take two weeks before they can test how the virus performs in laboratories.
The variant has been spotted in more than 20 countries worldwide and is likely to have been spreading for weeks before South Africa raised the alarm. The Netherlands detected a case one week earlier, while Nigeria found its first case in a sample taken in October.
It was even in the UK before it was first spotted by scientists last week, with nine cases in Scotland on November 20, causing speculation the strain was imported from the COP 26 climate conference or a rugby game at Murrayfield Stadium against South Africa.
Meanwhile, Norway announced 60 people likely contracted Omicron at a single Christmas party at a seafood restaurant in Oslo, in what is likely to be the world's biggest outbreak of the new strain so far.
Just how heavily Omicron has mutated from both the original Covid virus and other variants such as Delta has been laid bare by new images
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties
Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said it 'does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country'
Shocking graphic of Omicron's mutations reveals why scientists are so worried about most evolved Covid strain ever
This is the image that fuelled fear among scientists, sparked the turbocharging of the UK's massive booster vaccine rollout and saw the return of mask mandates in Britain.
The extent of Omicron's mutations from the original Covid virus has been laid bare in a new image from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), a group of public and private labs that analyses Covid genomes.
The image highlights the variant's 32 spike protein mutations compared to the original Covid virus, nearly five times that of the Delta strain.
Concern over its potential as a super-spreader prompted No10 to turbocharge the rollout of Covid boosters, ban travelers from several African nations, and reintroduce compulsory mask wearing.
Omicron's spike protein mutations H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the COG-UK image, are of particular concern as they could help the virus sneak into the body more easily. These mutations are also found in the Delta variant.
This image of the Omnicron Covid variant shows its 32 spike protein mutations, the highest of any strain found
Professor von Gottberg, from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said 183 of the 249 cases that have been sequenced in South Africa this month have been caused by the super strain.
Last Wednesday, 1,275 people tested positive in South Africa — marking a 3.6 per cent positivity rate.
The figure rose to 4,373 on Tuesday, with 10.2 per cent of those swabbed testing positive.
The upward trend continued yesterday, with 8,561 testing positive — increasing six-fold in a week and nearly doubling on Tuesday's number — equating to a positivity rate of 16.5 per cent.
Professor von Gottberg said about 75 per cent of samples that have been sequenced are Omicron, but she noted there is a lag, due to the time it takes to collect and sequence positive tests.
And the number of positive samples sequenced — when scientists examine a positive sample in a laboratory to determine what Covid strain caused an infection — in South Africa in November equate to less than one per cent of positive cases for the month.
There was 'bias' in the first Omicron samples scientists sequenced last month, because they examined positive cases they suspected were a new variant, rather than a random sample of the population.
Professor von Gottberg said: 'However, it does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country and Omicron has been identified through sequencing in at least five of our provinces that have sequencing data.
'And we think the other provinces were just not identifying it yet, because we don’t have specimens that have been sequenced for those provinces.'
And she warned that scientists are worried about the number of Omicron cases that are among people who have previously tested positive for Covid.
South Africa has a testing database that matches positive PCR and antigen tests to people so it can count reinfections — which it defines as a positive test from an individual 90 days after they first test positive.
Professor von Gottberg said: 'We monitored these reinfections for the Beta and for the Delta waves and we didn’t see an increase in reinfection over and above what we expect when the force of infection changes, when the wave stops.
'However, we are seeing an increase for Omicron.
'And that sort of speaks to that fact in our population with a high seroprevalence — so where many people have that previous infection — we believe that that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron.
'However, hopefully provides them with protection against severe disease, hospital admissions and death.'
She also said the virus may be no more contagious than Delta and expects vaccines to continue to protect against severe illness.
The UK and US are both recording much higher levels of infection than South Africa - the epicentre of the Omicron outbreak - but cases are rising sharply and are up 400 per cent in a week
South Africa's case numbers are likely to be an underestimate because the country is doing far fewer tests than the UK, but a comparable number to the US
Just a quarter of South Africans have had two Covid vaccine doses compared to almost 60 per cent in the US and 70 per cent in the UK
The above graph shows the seven-day average for the change in Covid cases week-on-week. It reveals that cases are now rising in every province of South Africa. It is not clear how many are linked to Omicron, but scientists there say the variant has already spread to every province of the country
Get ready for boosters every year: Pfizer boss says annual jabs needed to maintain 'very high protection'
Britons might need a Covid booster every year to maintain 'very high' levels of protection against the, Pfizer's boss said today after the UK ordered 114million more shots from his company and Moderna to vaccinate everyone until 2023.
Dr Albert Bourla, chief executive at the company which delivered the world's first Covid vaccine a year ago today, said global economies will probably need to rely on jabs for years to come to stay on top of new variants and counter waning immunity.
Pfizer is expected to rake in £61billion in revenue for the vaccine this year, double its pre-pandemic takings. But Dr Bourla denied profiteering from the jabs, insisting each was sold to rich countries like the UK for about as much as a 'takeaway meal'.
The UK has ordered another 114million doses that can be tweaked to fight off variants — including 54million Pfizer jabs and 60million Moderna doses in a deal thought to be worth around £2.05billion
Officials did not reveal how much the Pfizer jabs cost, but EU contracts show the bloc is spending about £16.50 per dose of Pfizer and £19.50 on Moderna's. They will arrive in 2022 and 2023, with plans already being drawn up to boost the nation's immunity for at least the next two years.
Business minister George Freeman said Britain was buying more jabs to make sure there was 'supply' available in case any further roll outs were needed. He added: 'We've got to make sure that our citizens are safe and that the global vaccine rollout through Covax is supported.'
She said: 'People talk about increased transmissibility, but I think in this case, this virus might be as transmissible — its own characteristics, the virus characteristics — may be very similar or slightly less than Delta in shedding or being able to be contagious.
'However, it’s the susceptibility of the population that is greater now because previous infection used to protect against Delta and now with Omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case.
'We believe that vaccines will still protect against severe disease because we have seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants but the vaccines have always held out to prevent severe disease and admission into hospitals and deaths.'
Scientists believe illness caused by Omicron will be 'less severe' among vaccinated people and those who have previously been infected, but they are monitoring this, Professor von Gottberg said.
When asked about reports that Omicron-infected children are being admitted to hospital in South Africa, she said there are reports of youngsters being admitted, but they have an 'uncomplicatedclinical course' and are discharged within a few days.
It comes as a Christmas party at the Louise seafood restaurant in Oslo saw up to 60 people contract Omicron in what is likely to be the world's biggest outbreak of the new strain so far.
Norwegian epidemiologists have ruled out the possibility the infections are Delta variant cases and said there was a 'high probability' it was Omicron because at least one of the Scatec employees had recently returned from the renewable energy company's South African office in Cape Town.
And in another twist, Scatec has insisted only vaccinated employees were allowed to attend the Christmas party last Friday and they needed a negative test result beforehand.
One of the company's super-spreaders was also drinking in an Irish bar in the city the following night, raising fears more could be infected.
More than 71 per cent of Norway's population are fully vaccinated, higher than the 69 per cent of Brits and 59 per cent of Americans who have had both jabs.
Meanwhiole, a spokesperson for the WHO, speaking anonymously to Reuters, yesterday said early data suggests the mutant strain is better at infecting people than Delta, even the fully vaccinated.
But there is no signal that existing vaccines will be any less effective at preventing hospitalisations and deaths, they said.
It is unclear what evidence the WHO is referring to, but the comment marked the first official hint that the Omicron super-strain may not wreak as much global havoc as initially feared.
Dr Pamela Smith-Lawrence, acting director of Health in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, said the majority of the 19 infected people have already tested negative.
And the two people who reported feeling unwell had 'very, very mild' symptoms, she said.
It is 'unfair' to treat Botswana as ground zero of the new variant, Dr Smith-Lawrence added.
Meanwhile, Israeli health minister Nitzan Horowitz yesterday said there was 'room for optimism' about the variant and existing vaccines will shield against severe illness from the super-strain, based on 'initial indications'.
Hours later, a report by an Israeli news channel claimed the Pfizer jab was 90 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection from Omicron, only slightly less than Delta.
The Channel 12 news broadcast also claimed the super variant is just 30 per cent more infectious than Delta — much lower than initially feared.
For comparison, Delta is 70 per cent more infectious than the Alpha strain, which it outpaced earlier this year.