Covid-19 vaccines still protect against severe illness from the Omicron variant

Based on what is currently known about the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, vaccines can still help with severe sickness, according to knowledge scientists have drawn from similarities in existing variants.  

Covid-19 vaccines are expected to maintain their effectiveness in preventing hospitalisation and severe illnesses, infectious disease expert Salim Abdool Karim told a news briefing hosted by the department of health on Monday.

“As far as diagnostics, clinical presentation and current treatments [are concerned] we’ve got really no reason for concern,” said Karim, adding, however, that at this point not much was known about the new variant “so we don’t really know how it behaves … or how transmissible it is … but we can look at mutations also seen in the Beta, Delta and Gamma variants”. Omicron has more than 30 mutations. 

According to Karim, preliminary evidence shows the variant’s mutations might pose some level of immunity against the antibodies an individual had built after contracting the virus previously. This can lead to people becoming reinfected. 

Karim said it was yet to be seen how the antibodies from the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines would react towards the Omicron variant and that this might become evident in the next three to four weeks. 

Owing to the “rapidity of transmission”, more than 10 000 daily new infections might be recorded by the end of this week, leading to a rise in hospital admissions.

Karim said the biggest challenge was to prevent superspreader events. 

“Vaccinated people are less likely to have severe Covid. And so one of the things is to restrict risky situations, particularly indoors, to vaccinated-only people. And that’s part of the strategy and the direction in which we should be heading,” he said.

Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Johannesburg, Gauteng, which is the epicentre of the current outbreak, noted that overall new cases had been noted in both vaccinated and unvaccinated patients. But vaccinated patients could be managed from home and tended “to do much better”, Pillay added.

Positivity rates in Gauteng, the North West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga have increased over the past two weeks. Data from the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD) shows this is largely driven by younger age groups, “more likely to congregate and socialise”.

Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the NICD, said the institute had recorded a significant increase in hospitalisations in Gauteng, in both the private and public sectors. 

A high proportion of young children were being admitted to hospital in Tshwane, Jassat said. “We saw large numbers of admissions in the zero-to-two-year age groups and middle-aged groups. And, of course, a little bit higher proportion of older people are being admitted because they usually present with more severe disease.”

Echoing Karim and Pillay, Jassat said the vast majority of new patient admissions were  unvaccinated, with a much smaller proportion being fully or partially vaccinated patients.

The department of health’s acting deputy director general for hospital services, Freddy Kgongwana, said Gauteng had been preparing for the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections and thus had enough available beds and oxygen to deal with a resurgence.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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