Vaccines and high prior exposure to coronavirus in South Africa appear to protect against the more serious symptoms seen in the last three waves of the pandemic, according to the country’s health minister.
Claims that previous exposure to another variant of the coronavirus – or vaccination – could offer protection from the Omicron variant, echoes analysis by South African experts earlier this week, which suggests that previous exposure or vaccination might provide some protection against serious illnesses.
This has been backed up by several reports, including from public and private health care providers, suggesting fewer hospital admissions during the current wave.
Based on the results of Shabir Mahdi, a vaccine expert at the University of the Witwatersrand, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at a press conference: âWe believe that it doesn’t necessarily have to be because Omicron is less virulent, but … [and] â¦ In addition to protection, the natural immunity of people who have been in contact with the virus. That is why we see a mild illness. “
While hospital admissions and deaths have increased in South Africa in recent days, due to the spike in cases following the advent of the Omicron variant coupled with persistent infections from the Delta variant, health officials say it remains at lower levels than in previous waves.
Michelle Groome of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said: “[We are] There has been a slight increase in deaths at the national level, but this level is again much lower than the base period we saw between the second and third waves. “
She added, “We are seeing an increase, but a relatively small increase in deaths.”
Wassila Jassat, also from NICD, said the number of people who needed oxygen was lower compared to all previous periods. “The patients seem to stay for a shorter time,” she said.
Phaahla added that initial evidence suggested the infections may have peaked in Gauteng province, where cases initially rose. However, the latest figures from the NICD showed that Gauteng continued to make up the majority of new infections with Covid at 27% on December 16, followed by KwaZulu-Natal (23%) and Western Cape (19%).
His comments came as the G7 group of countries identified the Omicron variant as “the greatest threat to global public health today” and said it was “more important than ever” for countries to “cooperate closely”.
While South Africa’s experience with Omicron has been carefully watched around the world for evidence of possible advances in infection, experts warn that other populations, with greater numbers of elderly and vulnerable people, may experience this differently.
With the Omicron variant contagious, one of the most pressing concerns is that the very rapid and concentrated outbreak of infections it creates could overwhelm healthcare systems because of the sheer number.
However, the South African press conference on Friday gets to the bottom of some unknowns about the Omicron variant.
Although Omicron has been found to be both more contagious and better able to bypass neutralizing antibodies provided by vaccines and prior exposure, questions remain as to whether other aspects of the body’s acquired immunity to Covid-19 may be more serious diseases weaken.
According to some experts, while Omicron may be more able to bypass key neutralizing antibodies attached to the virus’ spike protein, other tools in the immune system’s defense repertoire, including so-called killer T cells, may still do their job .
A presentation by Wendy Burgers of the University of Capetown at a World Health Organization symposium on Evidence of Omicron’s Immunity earlier this week showed that preliminary research suggested the body’s T-cell response to Omicron remained strong.
That remains questionable, however, as England’s Chief Medical Officer announced this week to the House of Commons that there is a lack of “very good T-cell studies” to see if this is happening.
South Africa has given at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to 44% of its adult population, more than many African countries but well below the government’s target for the end of the year. For those over 50, the vaccination coverage is over 60%.
The latest information came from South Africa as Omicron continued to spread rapidly around the world, with India – which suffered a devastating Delta eruption earlier this year – reporting 101 cases in 11 provinces.