Omicron mutant is to blame for South Africa’s latest COVID surge

South Africa is seeing a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases caused by another version of the coronavirus, health experts say.

The incidence in the country has been declining since February. But a new sub-variant of omicrons, which scientists are calling BA.4, started increasing cases last week, and they have risen rapidly since then, said Salim Abdul Karim, who previously advised the government on the COVID-19 response.

According to Abdul Karim, a public health expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, there has been only a slight increase in hospital admissions and no increase in deaths so far.

South Africa is reporting just over 6,000 COVID-19 cases per day, up from a few hundred just a few weeks ago. The rate of positive tests jumped from 4% in mid-April to 19% on Thursday, according to official data. Wastewater monitoring has also shown an increase in the spread of the coronavirus.

The new mutant appears to be rapidly gaining superiority over the original omicron and other versions of the virus, but Abdul Karim said “it’s too early to tell if BA.4 will spark a full wave.”

However, the new version is notable because the omicron variant first appeared in November in South Africa and Botswana and then spread around the world.

According to Helen Rees, executive director of the Institute for Reproductive Health and HIV at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, there is one worrying trend: children are the first to arrive in hospitals, just as they did during the initial omicron surge.

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Experts say BA.4 appears to be more contagious than the original Omicron variant and Omicron relative known as BA.2. Scientists are still studying the new mutant, but BA.4 doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease than other versions of the virus, according to a recent WHO report.

Abdul Karim said that in South Africa, crowding over the recent Easter, Ramadan and Passover holidays, as well as severe flooding in the coastal city of Durban, may have contributed to the current surge.

BA.4 has appeared in other countries, but it’s not clear if it will become “the globally dominant option,” he said.

So far, it has not made its way to the US, where BA.2 remains the dominant strain, while its descendant, named BA.2.12.1, is gaining ground. This descendant is spreading faster than previous versions of the virus and has caused about 29% of U.S. COVID cases over the past week, according to the US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can BA.4 outperform BA.2.12.1? Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, said the two variants are distributed in different populations and he is not aware of any data “that would support a reliable direct comparison.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, South Africa has accounted for the lion’s share of COVID-19 cases in Africa. Although the country’s 60 million people make up less than 5% of Africa’s 1.3 billion population, South Africa accounts for more than a quarter of the continent’s 11.4 million reported cases and almost half of Africa’s 252,000 deaths. Experts say this may be due to a more advanced public health system and better rates of hospitalizations and deaths than other African countries.

More than 44% of South African adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to government statistics.

Benido Impuma, WHO spokesman for Africa, said the latest surge “shows people need to remain vigilant and continue to practice public safety measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.”

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