Omicron – South Africa’s Experts Tell Their Stories


The panicked reaction across much of the world to the omicron variant comes with a scramble for information. In South Africa, the country where omicron was first identified and where cases are jumping, scientists and doctors describe what they are seeing.

Richard Friedland, chief executive officer of Netcare Ltd., which operates the largest private health-care network in South Africa:

  • If in the second and third wave we’d seen these levels of positivity to tests conducted, we would have seen very significant increases in hospital admissions and we’re not seeing that. In our primary care clinics it is mainly people under 30-years-old.
  • So I actually think there is a silver lining here and this may signal the end of Covid-19, with it attenuating itself to such an extent that it’s highly contagious, but doesn’t cause severe disease. That’s what happened with Spanish flu.
  • We are seeing breakthrough infections of people who have been vaccinated, but the infections we’re seeing are very mild to moderate. So for health care workers who have had boosters, it’s mostly mild. I think this whole thing has been so poorly communicated and so much panic generated.
  • It’s early days, but I’m less panicked. It feels different to me on the ground.

Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases:

  • All the data has shown that children have a less severe clinical course and 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 are admitting them, but many of them have an uncomplicated clinical course during the few days that they are in hospital.
  • We monitored reinfections for the beta and the delta waves and we didn’t see an increase in reinfections over and above what we expect when the force of infection changes, when a wave starts. With omicron, we are seeing an increase in reinfections.
  • This virus may be similar to delta in its ability to spread or in being contagious. However, it’s the susceptibility of the population that is greater now because previous infection used to protect against delta and now, with omicron, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
  • However, we believe that with the reinfections the disease will be less severe and the same would hold for those that are vaccinated. So that would be good news.

Anthony Smith, a general practitioner in Cape Town:

  • It was like a tap being turned on from Thursday or Friday last week. It’s been mostly young people, but there have been some older people, probably around 20%.
  • Most of the kids have got it at communal events. They are from a younger demographic and presenting with milder symptoms, mainly sore throats and respiratory phenomenon. But, even in older people, it’s been relatively mild.
  • No-one has been even close to being seriously ill. But it’s probably too early to tell if this will be a milder variant.