The Omicron variant, currently wreaking havoc all over the world, first showed up in South Africa, around the time of Thanksgiving. While there’s a chance that the variant originated somewhere else, the first cases were reported in South Africa.
Now, there are signs that South Africa is past its peak when it comes to dealing with the Omicron wave.
South Africa Might Be Peaking…
Dr. Angelique Coetze, a doctor in South Africa who was one of the first to treat Omicron patients, said in an interview with CNN Monday that “we’re over the curve,” with numbers in the province that was the epicenter of the wave coming down. She reiterated, however, that the positivity rate is still around 30 percent, on a high volume of testing.
Late last week, South Africa’s health minister stated, per The Daily Beast, that the country’s hospital admission rate for COVID-19 fell 90 percent in the second week of the Omicron wave from the first, with many indications showing that Omicron infection leads to milder infection than was the case with either the original COVID-19 or the Delta variant.
“We have seen a decrease in a proportion of people who need to be on oxygen. They are at very low levels,” Waasila Jassat, a researcher at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases told Bloomberg News this week. “For the first time there are more non-severe than severe patients in hospital.”
David Wallace-Wells, a noted expert on the pandemic who writes for New York magazine, looked this week at the status of the Omicron wave in South Africa, and what it could mean for the direction it may take in the U.S. Wallace-Wells interviewed Trevor Bedford, of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“One of the fundamentals of this dynamical modeling field is that epidemics crash not when they’ve infected everyone but when your number of secondary infections is less than one, when Rt falls below one,” Bedford said. “So even if we have an initial Rt of two, the numbers are quite big, but you don’t infect the whole population.”
Bedford added that the AstraZeneca vaccine will likely have less of a protective effect than that of the Pfizer vaccine, although the AstraZeneca was never approved in the U.S.
Bedford also said that he expects a 50 percent “attack rate” from the Omicron variant, which could add up to as many as 160 million cases. And he agreed with the consensus that the Omicron variant will likely be less deadly, due to a variety of factors.
“ I would strongly suspect that on a case-fatality basis, the rate will be much lower with Omicron. But we’ll have a lot of cases, too, because now we have all of these individuals available to the virus that were weren’t available before,” he said.
How Fast Can America Hit Peak Omicron?
Can we conclude that infections in the U.S. will follow a similar pattern, with a huge wave abetting in a matter of weeks? That’s unclear, especially since the U.S. is a much larger country, while South Africa has an unusually low average population. And peaks can be followed later on by secondary peaks.
Per the Beast, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that Omicron is already in most countries, while it is spreading faster than any of the previous variants.
“We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild. Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril,” WHO’s Ghebreyesus said. “The sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”
Omicron Vaccines Coming?
On Monday morning, Moderna announced the results of preliminary data, showing that its vaccine plus its booster provides increased protection against the Omicron variant.
“The dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant is concerning to all. However, these data showing that the currently authorized Moderna COVID-19 booster can boost neutralizing antibody levels 37-fold higher than pre-boost levels are reassuring, said Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in the announcement. The company also said that it is working on a Moderna-specific booster.
Pfizer and BioNTech, who developed the other major mRNA booster, also announced earlier this month that they believe their booster is effect, and that they are working on an Omicron-specific booster, which they expect to have ready in March.
But Markets Are Still Nervous…
Also on Monday, the leading stock exchanges were all down, presumably on Omicron news. The S&P 500 had dropped 64.14 points as of Monday afternoon, while the Dow dropped 529.77, and the Nasdaq saw a drop of 206.45 on the day.
Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group, told CNBC that the stock drop was “reflecting growing uncertainty surrounding whether the Omicron surge will bring new widespread economic shutdowns, an unexpected shelving of additional fiscal stimulus from President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, and a breach by the S&P 500 index of its 50-day moving average.”
Stephen Silver is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review, and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.