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South Africa in new surge of COVID from versions of Omicron

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – South Africa is experiencing a surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by two Omicron sub-variants, according to health experts.

For about three weeks the country has seen increasing numbers of new cases and somewhat higher hospitalisations, but not increases in severe cases and deaths, said a researcher at Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Analytics at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto Professor Marta Nunes.

“We’re still very early in this increase period, so I don’t want to really call it a wave,” Nunes said. “We are seeing a slight, a small increase in hospitalisations and really very few deaths.”

South Africa’s new cases have gone from an average of 300 per day in early April to about 8,000 per day this week. Nunes said the actual number of new cases is probably much higher because the symptoms are mild and many who get sick are not getting tested.

South Africa’s new surge is from two variations of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which appear to be very much like the original strain of Omicron that was first identified in South Africa and Botswana late last year and swept around the globe.

“The majority of new cases are from these two strains. They are still Omicron … but just genomically somewhat different,” said Nunes. The new versions appear to be able to infect people who have immunity from earlier COVID infections and vaccinations but they cause generally mild disease, she said. In South Africa, 45 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, although about 85 per cent of the population is thought to have some immunity based on past exposure to the virus.

“It looks like the vaccines still protect against severe disease,” Nunes said.

People queue at a COVID-19 testing centre in Soweto, South Africa. PHOTO: AP