Johannesburg: The WHO has rushed a team of experts to South Africa’s Gauteng province, the epicentre of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, to ramp up surveillance and contact tracing efforts as the country grapples with rising cases of infections.
Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa exactly a week ago, now has been detected in at least 29 countries around the world, including India.
“We are deploying a surge team in Gauteng province to support surveillance and contact tracing,” World Health Organisation’s Regional Emergency Director for Africa Dr Salam Gueye said in a media briefing on Thursday. A team is already working in South Africa on genomic sequencing, he said.
The Gauteng province, which is the economic hub of South Africa, has accounted for almost 80 per cent of the infections over the past week.
Some 11,500 new infections were registered on Thursday, a sharp rise from the 8,500 cases confirmed on the previous day.
In contrast, daily infections were averaging between 200 and 300 in mid-November in the country, according to health officials.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said at the same briefing that around 75 per cent of samples tested positive for the new variant.
“For the month of November, we had 249 sequences and of those, 183 have been considered to be Omicron,” said NICD clinical microbiologist professor Anne von Gottberg.
According to the Africa Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, the continent recorded 52,300 new COVID-19 cases compared to the previous week, a 105 per cent increase.
WHO’s Africa director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said on Thursday that countries “must adjust their COVID-19 response and stop a surge in cases from sweeping across Africa and possibly overwhelming already-stretched health facilities.”
Gauteng Premier David Makhura confirmed in a separate media briefing that the province was on the cusp of a fourth wave.
“We are monitoring the situation very closely; getting feedback from our clinical teams also on the full impact of this. As we see the (rising) numbers every day, we are very concerned about it,” Makhura said, as he made a plea to residents of the province to step up to get vaccinated.
The premier said that since Monday, there were over 50,000 vaccinations a day from the low of 30,000 daily before the announcement of the new variant.
“If we sustain the daily vaccination of 50,000 throughout this period into the festive season, it will help us to reach at least another half a million people before they leave Gauteng,” he said.
Makhura was referring to the annual exodus to rural areas outside the province by workers in Gauteng as business and industry shuts down from mid-December for several weeks until early in the new year.
“We need to catch people here in Gauteng and vaccinate them because we know that during the festive season millions of people leave our province. We don’t want people to be carrying this variant to other provinces, especially those who are not vaccinated,” he explained.
Joining Makhura at the briefing was Gauteng COVID-19 Command Council chairperson Dr Mary Kawonga, who said the province was already seeing a spike in cases.
“The rate at which cases are increasing and the fact that we actually two days ago passed the seven-day rolling average that was the threshold for the third wave means that we are in a resurgence, and we need to behave like we are already in the (fourth) wave, without waiting for the technical definition,” she said.
Kawonga said the peak of the fourth wave was expected in about two weeks, with about 45,000 active cases and about 4,000 hospitalisations at the peak.
“Remember, this is the modelling and the prediction. Depending on how we are able to vaccinate and how we adhere to non-pharmaceutical interventions, it is very possible that whatever is predicted might not come to pass,” she opined.
Another member of the Council, Professor Bruce Melado, believed that although a higher peak would likely occur during the fourth wave, there would be fewer deaths.
“We should expect at least 4,000 (deaths) compared to the 9,500 during the third peak,” Melado said, adding that the high levels of community transmissions were expected to continue into January.