Previous infection does not seem to protect against Omicron, NICD prof says

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  • Previous Covid-19 infection does not seem to protect against the Omicron variant, says Professor Anne von Gottberg.
  • She says it is believed that vaccines will still protect against severe disease.
  • Data is becoming available as the NICD tries to understand the variant by using preliminary analyses.

A National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) professor says the susceptibility of the population is greater because previous infection used to protect against Delta - but now, with Omicron variant, it doesn't seem to be the case.

Professor Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and the head of respiratory diseases at the NICD, says the institute believes vaccines will still protect against severe disease.

"The vaccines have always held out to prevent severe disease, admission to hospital and death. And that's the reason why a final message really about this variant is to consider the basic principles of what we should be doing," said Von Gottberg during a World Health Organisation Africa press briefing on Thursday.

READ | Omicron variant: Why everyone still needs to be vaccinated, even if they've had Covid-19

Von Gottberg maintained that the same methods used to protect from the other variants hold true for Omicron, emphasising the importance of inoculation and the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as masking up and avoiding large gatherings in unventilated areas.

Cases are increasing at a rapid rate, Von Gottberg said.

On Wednesday, more than 8 000 new cases were reported in South Africa - and she estimated that it would rise to 10 000 per day.

"In all of our provinces, we are seeing an increase in the percentage testing positive of all SARS-CoV-2 tests being done, and we think that the number of cases is going to increase in these provinces," she said.

However, it does look like there is a predominance of Omicron throughout the country. Omicron has been identified through sequencing in at least five provinces that have sequencing data, and we think the other provinces are just not identifying it yet, because we don't have specimens that have been sequenced for those provinces.

While the South African population comprises many who have previously contracted Covid-19, previous infection was not believed to protect against Omicron, she said.

"It, however, hopefully provides them with protection against severe disease, hospital admission and death," she said.

Overall, what worries us is that we have a system in place to look at reinfections. If we monitor using our testing database - the database that has PCR and antigen tests for the whole country, both the public and the private sector - we monitor the first test and then we can see the other tests as they come in. We call a reinfection another test from the same individual 90 days after the first positive test.

"We monitored these reinfections for the Beta and for the Delta wave, and we didn't see an increase in reinfections over and above what we expect when the force of infection changes - when the wave stops. However, we are seeing an increase for Omicron."

Data was becoming available and was being released by the NICD as it tried to understand the variant by using preliminary analyses, she assured.

READ | Western Cape officially enters a resurgence

"But I think that's the first message when people talk about increased transmissibility. I think, in this case, this virus might be as transmissible. Its own characteristics, the virus characteristics, may be very similar or slightly less than Delta in its spreading, or being able to be contagious."

She said it is believed that the disease will be less severe.

"And that's what we're trying to prove and to monitor very carefully in South Africa. The same would hold for those that are vaccinated. … It would be good for us - in Africa, in South Africa and globally - if those that have had previous infection or been vaccinated have less severe disease due to Omicron."

She said a lot of the available information surrounding Omicron's severity was anecdotal.

"Some of it is becoming more systematic. And I think we need to be patient to allow the ongoing analyses and ongoing reports from hospitals to become a bit more systematic and more comprehensive for us to truly know."

Meanwhile, Von Gottberg said hospitals were seeing and admitting more children for Covid-19.

In SA, adolescents between 12 and 17 years are eligible to receive one jab.

"Data has shown that children have a less severe clinical course. We've had some anecdotal reports from hospitals in South Africa that, yes, they are seeing a few more children in some of the hospitals and admitting them. But many of them have an uncomplicated clinical course during the few days that they are admitted or in hospital."

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