EXPLAINER | Fifth wave of Covid-19 infections: What is the state of the pandemic in SA?

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  • South Africa has seen a continued increase in Covid-19 infections, possibly linked to a fifth wave of infections. 
  • This as health authorities said the current wave of infections is driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants in the country. 
  • News24 looked at the current state of the pandemic in South Africa, whether it may be as severe as previous waves, and when it may peak. 

Last Wednesday, Covid-19 infections in South Africa increased by 10 017 in one day - the first day since January that there has been more than 10 000 new infections.

Health authorities have long warned South Africa may be entering a fifth wave of infections driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants, News24 previously reported.

It was previously predicted the fifth wave would start in the winter months, sometime in May or June. 

ALSO READ | ANALYSIS: 'Midnight' health regulations are open to constitutional challenge

News24 looked at the current state of the pandemic in South Africa, whether it may be as severe as previous waves, and when it may peak. 

What is the current state of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa? 

Similar to previous waves of Covid-19 in South Africa, the latest infections are being driven in the country's most populous provinces, namely Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. 

The Western Cape, has, however also seen an increase in infections, while the remaining provinces will likely see their numbers rise within the coming days. 

And while the number of Covid-19 infections has steadily increased in South Africa, there hasn't been a similar increase in hospitalisations as seen during previous waves. 

On 15 May, there were 4 344 new cases of Covid-19 in South Africa, while two new deaths were recorded. 

Will the current wave of Covid-19 infections be as severe as previous waves? 

University of Johannesburg associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, and director of The Future of Health and Medicine project at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge, Benjamin Smart, previously told News24 given the trend of increasing transmissibility with new variants, he would not be surprised if we experienced many new cases.

"However, I also suspect given that one, a large proportion of the population are now fully vaccinated, and two, a large[r] proportion of the population have already been infected with Covid-19, and as a result carry some immunity, that the average harm caused by infection will also continue to dwindle," Smart said. 

ALSO READ | Tighter lockdown restrictions ruled out amid looming fifth wave as Covid-19 cases spike

He added many cases would likely be asymptomatic and would ultimately go unreported. 

"So, we will never really know how many people get infected. What's far more important at this stage is the number of people admitted to the hospital and the number of lives lost." 

University of Cape Town School of Public Health and family medicine director Professor Landon Myer said the country might see substantial numbers of new infections, but might not see the levels of hospitalisation it had seen with previous waves, as immunity due to vaccination and/or previous infections limited the disease caused by new variants.

When will the current wave of Covid-19 infections peak in South Africa? 

Speaking to eNCA, senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Dr Ridhwaan Suliman said South Africa entered into the fifth wave of Covid-19 infections some three weeks ago, and might already be seeing new infections slowing down.

Suliman added the country was well into the fifth wave, with tracked data points indicating it started in April.

READ | Covid-19: Masks stay on until govt says otherwise

He said based on previous waves of Covid-19 infections, it was known the country entered a new wave of infections when the number of new cases per 100 000 people exceeded five per day, and when the test positivity rate breached the 10% level. 

"We reached those levels at least three weeks ago. In fact, over the past week, we've seen a possible slowing down of infections, so we may potentially already be heading to the peak of this wave."

Suliman added South Africa was currently averaging just more than 7 500 new cases per day. This number is still increasing, but the rate of increase is slowing.

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