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COVID surge in South Africa driven by omicron sub-variants, experts say

A surge of new COVID-19 cases is threatening South Africa. 

Health experts say infections are driven by two sub-variants of omicron. 

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The BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron – which appear to be very much like the original strain of omicron – make up the majority of the new cases, according to Professor Marta Nunes, a researcher at Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Analytics at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

“The majority of new cases are from these two strains. They are still omicron … but just genomically somewhat different,” she told The Associated Press, noting that there is a small increase in hospitalizations and “really very few deaths.” 

The average of new cases have risen from around 300 per day in April to about 8,000 per day last week – though experts posit that the actual number of cases is much higher.

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The sub-variants appear to infect people who have immunity from earlier COVID-19 infections and vaccinations, and Nunes said they cause generally mild disease. 

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“It looks like the vaccines still protect against severe disease,” she added.

South African authorities said in April that a rapid rise in cases was due to BA.4 and Salim Abdool Karim – a public health expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal – said it was too early to tell whether the sub-variant would cause a “fully-fledged wave.” 

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said there was no evidence that BA.4 was leading to much higher rates of hospitalization or death.

A patient undergoes a nasal swab to check for COVID-19 at a testing centre in Soweto, South Africa, Wednesday, May 11, 2022. 

The agency said the number of new global cases has continued to decline across the globe except for the Americas and Africa.

“The jury is still out as to how seasonal this virus will become,” WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan told reporters earlier this month. 

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“If people are crowded together in conditions where a new variant is spreading, you will see high levels of transmission,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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