It’s been a week since officials with the World Health Organization labeled the omicron strain of the coronavirus as a “variant of concern”. Originally detected in South Africa, the new variant has an unusual number of mutations and has already been in over two dozen countries, including the U.S.
However, the WHO said Friday that the new variant hasn’t led to a major increase in the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in South Africa, which could mean that the new strain isn’t any more lethal than the delta variant, which currently makes up around 99% of all COVID-19 cases worldwide. Health officials say it’s too soon to jump to any conclusions, but they are urging the public not to panic.
What the Numbers Show
Experts warn that it’s only a matter of time before we see a wave of new cases caused by the omicron variant. The number of cases in South Africa has quadrupled since last Tuesday, which suggests the new strain can spread more easily than the delta variant.
Officials in the country recorded 16,055 infections within the last 24 hours. The positivity rate in South Africa went from 16.5% on Tuesday to 24.3% of tests on Friday, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Researchers have found evidence that people previously infected with the coronavirus are more likely to get infected with the omicron variant than previous strains of the virus, including delta.
“Contrary to our expectations and experience with the previous variants, we are now experiencing an increase in the risk of reinfection that exceeds our prior experience,” said Juliet Pulliam, director of the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University.
Pulliam and her colleagues looked at the infection rates of around 2.7 million people since the start of the pandemic.
“We identified 35,670 individuals with at least two suspected infections (through 27 November 2021), 332 individuals with suspected third infections, and 1 individual with four suspected infections,” the team wrote in their report. “Among the individuals who have had more than one reinfection, 47 (14.2%) experienced their third infection in November 2021, which suggests that many third infections are associated with transmission of the Omicron variant.”
After just a week, officials in South Africa say the omicron variant is now the dominant strain, accounting for 74% of all cases.
“The timing of these changes strongly suggests that they are driven by the emergence of the Omicron variant,” the researchers wrote.
Omicron and Kids
Health officials are also sounding the alarm over the omicron variant and kids. The new strain has had a disproportionate effect on children under the age of 5, leading to a dramatic spike in the number of severe cases.
“We’ve always seen children not being very heavily affected by the COVID epidemic in the past, not having many admissions. In the third wave, we saw more admissions in young children under 5 and in teenagers, 15 to 19, and now, at the start of this fourth wave, we have seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, but particularly in the under 5s,” said Waasila Jassat, medical advisor to the South African government.
She pointed out that this age group remains largely unvaccinated.
“The incidence in those under 5 is now second-highest, second only to those over 60. The trend that we’re seeing now, that is different to what we’ve seen before, is a particular increase in hospital admissions in children under 5 years,” she said.
Jassat believes the virus may have mutated to make it more transmissible among children. She said there were only 20 children under 5 hospitalized with COVID-19 in May in the city of Tshwane. From November 14 to 27, that number climbed to more than a hundred.
As more adults get vaccinated, kids are becoming the ones who are “getting sick and need to be admitted,” she said.
According to pediatricians across the area, most of the parents of children being admitted to the hospital weren’t vaccinated.
“And the younger children, younger than 12, who were not eligible for vaccination, none of their parents, except for three, were vaccinated,” Jassat said. “[It shows] the value of vaccination in the adult protecting the children in the homes.”
South Africa has a much lower vaccination rate than the U.S. and other Western nations. Currently, just 42% of all adults have received their first dose, according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla.
Despite the possible increase in transmissibility, experts say the omicron variant hasn’t led to a major increase in hospitalizations or deaths.
Phaala added that most of the omicron cases in the country so far have been “mild”. However, when asked about the condition of those that have been infected with omicron, he said, “It is still too early at this stage.”
“Our clinicians have not witnessed severe illness. Part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people,” Dr Paahla added.
While that may be a cause for concern, health officials say we’re not out of the woods yet. “This variant is indeed highly transmissible, including in people who have already been vaccinated,” Paahla said.
The omicron variant will likely change the nature of the pandemic, putting a new emphasis on protecting children from the virus. Parents should consider getting vaccinated now before it’s too late.