Omicron Variant Wave Over in South Africa

Carolyn Crist

January 19, 2022

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

South Africa's surge in coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant has fallen as sharply as it increased, with its fourth wave now considered "over."

The variant was first identified by researchers in South Africa about 8 weeks ago, and infections spread quickly across the globe. The country is now returning to a semblance of normalcy, with busy restaurants and businesses, CBS News reported.

The news offers hope for other countries that their Omicron surges may soon be over. That said, hospitalizations and deaths didn't increase as much in South Africa as they have elsewhere, CBS News noted.

During the Delta variant wave 6 months ago, South Africa's hospitals were overwhelmed, with intensive care unit beds and oxygen running out, the news outlet reported. But during the recent Omicron variant wave, hospitals didn't fill, and few patients needed oxygen.

The vaccines, combined with high rates of infection before Omicron hit, appear to have boosted the collective immunity in South Africa, public health experts told CBS News. That has reduced the rates of severe illness and death during the latest wave of infections.

"The Omicron wave now accounts for less than 5% of all of the deaths that have occurred due to COVID-19 [in South Africa] since the start of the pandemic," Shabir Madhi, PhD, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, told the news outlet.

More COVID-19 variants will likely emerge, he noted, but the high hospitalization rates and death tolls may be over.

"I'm highly optimistic that we have reached a turning point in this pandemic," Madhi said. "I can't see us revisiting what we experienced during the course of the first three waves in South Africa."

As public health experts watch the situation in South Africa, they have urged caution around drawing too many conclusions for other countries. The population is younger, for instance, and previous high infection rates likely led less severe infections there, CBS News reported.

The news comes as many places across the U.S. are still seeing an increase in cases and hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, told CNN on Sunday.

COVID-19 cases appear to be dropping in New York City, which was one of the first places in the U.S. to be hit hard by the Omicron variant. But more than 750,000 infections are still being reported each day nationwide.

"The challenge is that the entire country is not moving at the same pace," Murthy said. "The Omicron wave started later in other parts of the country, so we shouldn't expect a national peak in the coming days. The next few weeks will be tough."

U.S. scientists are also looking to other countries with similar populations and vaccination rates. The Omicron surge in the U.K. appears to be ebbing, with infections falling sharply in recent days.

"We're almost there. It is now the beginning of the end, at least in the U.K.," Julian Hiscox, PhD, head of infection and global health at the University of Liverpool, told the BBC.

"I think life in 2022 will be almost back to before the pandemic," he said. "Should a new variant or old variant come along, for most of us, like any other common cold coronavirus, we'll get the sniffles and a bit of a headache, and then we're OK."

Sources

CBS News: "South Africa is over Omicron, and their good news may be a harbinger of hope for the U.S."

CNN: "The Omicron surge hasn't peaked nationwide, and 'the next few weeks will be tough,' US surgeon general says."

BBC News: "Endemic Covid: Is the pandemic entering its endgame?"

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