JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
Because of the possibility that they may be affected by unreliable testing or reporting delays, daily virus cases are not always reliable. But they are offering one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.
South Africa was at the forefront in the omicron revolution and the entire world is looking for clues to help them understand.
The number of cases dropped from nearly 27,000 to 15,424 nationwide, after a Thursday high. In Gauteng province — South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.
“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press.
“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. It is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease.”
Gauteng saw its population rise sharply in November. Genetic sequencing was used to quickly identify the highly-mutated variant of the omicron that scientists announced to the rest of the world on November 25.
Because omicron was more widely transmissible than other species, it quickly gained dominance in South Africa. According to testing, omicron accounts for approximately 90% of COVID-19-related cases in Gauteng since mid November.
It seems that the rest of the world is following suit, as omicron has become the predominant coronavirus variant in many countries. In the U.S., omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week, health officials said — and the variant is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
In the United Kingdom, coronavirus confirmed cases have increased by 60% over a week since omicron surpassed delta to become the predominant variant. The World Health Organization reports that the variant was detected in at most 89 countries worldwide.
In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly less hospitalizations, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
Gauteng’s cases began to fall. After reaching 16,000 new infections on Dec. 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped, to just over 3,300 cases Tuesday.
“It’s significant. It’s very significant,” Dr. Fareed Abdullah said of the decrease.
“The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we’re seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave,” said Abdullah, working in the COVID-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
In another sign that South Africa’s omicron surge may be receding, a study of health care professionals who tested positive for COVID-19 at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto shows a rapid increase and then a quick decline in cases.
“Two weeks ago we were seeing more than 20 new cases per day and now it is about five or six cases per day,” Nunes said.
She said that it was still early, and several things must be carefully monitored.
South Africa’s positivity rate has remained high at 29%, up from just 2% in early November, indicating the virus is still circulating among the population at relatively high levels, she said.
And the country’s holiday season is now underway, when many businesses close down for a month and people travel to visit family, often in rural areas. This could accelerate omicron’s spread across South Africa and to neighboring countries, experts said.
“In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled,” said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
“But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak. There are too many external factors, including the movement during the holiday season and the general behavior during this period,” she said, noting that infections spiked last year after the holiday break.
It’s summertime in South Africa and many gatherings are outdoors, which may make a difference between the omicron-driven wave here and the surges in Europe and North America, where people tend to gather indoors.
Unknown is the extent to which omicron spreads among South Africans, without causing any disease.
New York’s health officials suggested that South Africa may have seen a brief, mild wave. This suggests the variant might behave the same way in America and South Africa. However, Nunes warns that these conclusions should not be jumped to.
“Each setting, each country is different. Different populations exist. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said. South Africa’s population, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many Western countries, for instance.
Uekermann stated that the majority of COVID-19-related patients being treated at hospitals currently aren’t vaccinated. About 40% of South African adult population has been given two doses.
“All my patients in ICU are unvaccinated,” Uekermann said. “So our vaccinated people are doing better in this wave, for sure. We have got some patients who are very ill with severe COVID, and these are unvaccinated patients.”
Mogomotsi Magome, an AP journalist from Johannesburg, contributed.
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