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African scientists say ‘mild Omicron’ could end pandemic

THE rapid spread of Omicron had concerned virologists. Now, African scientists are optimistic that the variant could mark the end of the pandemic and the beginning of an endemic.

As of Friday, 21 January 2022, the coronavirus pandemic had claimed the lives of more than 5.5 million people worldwide. 

The highly contagious omicron and delta variants are responsible for the exponential infection numbers recorded daily.

Omicron, first detected and documented in South Africa, is becoming the dominant variant in many parts of the world, including across Africa.

The Omicron variant has now been reported in 36 African countries, and 169 nations all over the world. 

A South African study has shown that, despite the high number of infections, deaths haven’t increased statistically significantly when compared with previous variants.

The fourth wave of infections has been slowing in South Africa, and life is gradually returning to normal for the first time since the pandemic’s start in 2020.

“I do wish that I won’t even hear the name COVID. That’s what we are wishing for,” one resident of Cape Town told DW.

A South African study has shown that, despite the high number of infections, deaths haven’t increased statistically significantly when compared with previous variants.

The fourth wave of infections has been slowing in South Africa, and life is gradually returning to normal for the first time since the pandemic’s start in 2020.

“I do wish that I won’t even hear the name COVID. That’s what we are wishing for,” one resident of Cape Town told DW.

Another resident told DW: “It’s very nice to see everyone going out and about, relaxing, going outside. We’ve been locked down in our houses for how long now?! I hope that omicron is actually the final stage of this virus.”

South African virologist Wolfgang Preiser told DW that the behavior of the omicron variant gives hope that the pandemic could become endemic. But he added that it could only be achieved when most of the population has a primary immunity from a previous infection or vaccination.

“I still hope we can get around regular booster shots,” Preiser said. 

“If another variant doesn’t come as a nasty surprise, then we can keep our immunity up by natural means via regular reinfections with the coronavirus,” Preiser added.

‘GOOD NEWS’ FOR AFRICA?

The comparatively mild infections caused by the omicron variant have proved to be good news for African countries where infections have been rising — and have also given scientists hope of a possible end to the pandemic.

“This is very good news,” the Ghanaian epidemiologist Fred Binka told DW. “Viruses have two major characteristics: They have virulence, and they also have the transmission capabilities.”

“They either mutate and gain strength in the transmissibility or their virulence,” Binka said. “So, when they become very transmissible, you have the lower virulence.”

Binka sounded upbeat, adding: “It is obvious that the pandemic is coming to an end, the virus has now established itself, and it will be endemic and be here forever.” He predicted that COVID-19 will become a typical disease “that we can live with and treat.”

WHO URGES CAUTION

According to the World Health Organization, the relatively mild infections do not mean that the world is out of the danger zone yet. 

For the first time in Africa since the peak of the Omicron wave, weekly Covid-19 cases dropped significantly and deaths dipped, the World Health Organization (WHO) disclosed last week.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that the pandemic is nowhere near over. “Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading,” Tedros said.

“Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less-severe cases are inundating health facilities,” he added.

Globally, deaths continue to rise. In Africa, there are still concerns about the impact of the pandemic, with vaccinations rates being the lowest in the world. Only 7% of Africa’s population has received a COVID jab.

“If you get to a situation where nearly everyone has had it or has been vaccinated, you can relax,” Preiser said.

Preiser said African countries, including South Africa, would need to keep pushing for populations to get vaccinated.

Binka also said remaining vigilant was key. “Caution is the order of the day,” Binka said, adding that not all details about Omicron “has been documented, so let’s wait another six months and see what will happen.”

Newly reported cases fell by 20 per cent in the week that ended on 16 January, while deaths dropped by 8 per cent.

South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first sequenced, and which has accounted for the bulk of cases and deaths, has now recorded a downward trend for the past four weeks.

Cases also fell across the rest of the continent, with only North Africa reporting an increase in cases, with a 55 per cent spike.

AFRICAN CHILDREN AT HIGHER RISK 

The cautious optimism from the African scientists comes after another study published in JAMA Paediatrics and led by a University of Pittsburgh infectious diseases epidemiologist found that children hospitalised with Covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa are dying at a faster rate than in the US and Europe.

According to the study, children of all ages with comorbidities — including high blood pressure, chronic lung diseases, hematological disorders and cancer — were more likely to die.

“Although our study looked at data from earlier in the pandemic, the situation hasn’t changed much for the children of Africa,” said lead author Jean B. Nachega, an associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology and epidemiology at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. 

“If anything, it is expected to be worsening with the global emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant,” Nachega said. 

The professor called on officials to urgently increase COVID-19 vaccinations and therapeutic interventions for eligible at-risk children and adolescents in Africa.

Last Wednesday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa opened a Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing facility. The NantSA plant located in Brackenfell, Western Cape, will be manufacturing second-generation vaccines.

“Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics,” Ramaphosa said at the facility’s opening.

Even though vaccine supplies have been on the rise, the rate of vaccination remains low, with just 10 per cent of the continent’s population fully vaccinated.

Africa has so far received about 500 million vaccine doses and administered 327 million.

According to Dr. Moeti, significant efforts are needed to ramp up the vaccination to reach a broad swathe of the population. 

By mid-2022, the UN-backed COVAX Facility expects to have enough supply for all participant countries to fully vaccinate 45 per cent of their populations. 
– DEUTSCHE WELLE

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