/ 30 November 2021

Shabir Madhi: SA scientists were responsible when announcing Omicron

Gauteng Provincial Command Council Gives An Update On Covid 19 In South Africa
Professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand, Shabir Madhi. (Photo by Luba Lesolle/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

South African scientists acted responsibly by reporting on the detection of the Omicron variant that emerged from the mutation of Covid-19, but the future communication of emerging mutations should be “measured”.

This is according to professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand, Shabir Madhi, who was in conversation with the Mail & Guardian on 29 November.

South African scientists had been criticised for the announcement on the detection of what they called variant B.1.1.529, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified as Omicron on 26 November, with the chief executive of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, calling on the scientific community to be cautious in the announcements they make.

At the time, Tshivhengwa said: “We respect the work that the scientists are doing but we feel like yesterday’s announcement should not have happened because we have too little data about this variant. The announcements should be done with caution to avoid stoking fear.”

But Madhi believes that scientists had to report the new variant to allow for other scientists to work on adapting the vaccines to the variant, for instance.

“Yes, it is to our disadvantage eventually to go public with this, but it is also our responsibility, because it doesn’t have relevance to South Africa only, it has global relevance, and we can’t have a situation where we don’t announce this variant and allow for it to continue dispersing, knowing that it exists,” he said.

“A lesson from this experience is that we certainly need to be sharing data in real time, but we need to look at who the stakeholders are that we need to share the data with immediately rather than making public announcements in South Africa, which is the first [time] the rest of the world gets to hear of [the variant] and aren’t able to contextualise it, and might end up making sort of premature conclusions of its relevance and act in a very hasty manner,” added Madhi.

Madhi said most of the information available on the Omicron variant is theoretical data. Its virulence, immune escape abilities and the effectiveness of the vaccines will be confirmed in the next two to three weeks.

Even though breakthrough infections are to be expected, it is also expected that the severity of the infections will not be similar to what was experienced during the second and third waves.

“Laboratory work that will take place in the next coming week or two as well as ongoing clinical observations — in terms of seeing how many of these individuals end up in hospital and if there is any change in patterns of age, [and] which age groups are ending up in hospital. That will eventually determine the clinical relevance of the theoretical concerns of the mutations.” 

Madhi went on to encourage more South Africans to get vaccinated, stating that the vaccines remained the only effective way to prevent severe disease, hospitalisation or death, especially among the over-50 age group, which had previously been the most affected by the virus.