South Africa’s Omicron wave provides hope on disease severity, vaccine protection 

While cases are rising faster than in any previous wave in South Africa, early evidence is giving the health ministry cautious reason for optimism that the new Omicron coronavirus variant may result in less severe disease, and that vaccines still provide protection against hospitalization. 

Several laboratory studies this week suggested the variant, first identified in Botswana and South Africa last month, could dodge the protection of a primary course of vaccination. Omicron has now spread across dozens of countries, including the majority of EU countries.

Now, real-world evidence from South Africa’s hospitals appears to indicate that vaccines do protect against hospitalization from Omicron, with South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla saying today that initial reports indicate around 70 percent of people admitted are unvaccinated.

Evidence indicates vaccines provide “very strong” protection against severe disease, said Phaahla, and that those who are vaccinated are “much better protected” than those without a jab.

While hospitalizations are on the rise, Phaahla said this could be “largely due to overall big numbers of infections.” Early data indicates there was a lower proportion of people being hospitalized for severe disease than in earlier coronavirus waves. Many people in hospital with positive cases were also incidentally infected, as they were admitted for other illnesses, he added.

The health minister admitted, however, that it would take “some weeks” to fully answer the question of severity.

Experts have cautioned that even if the variant is less severe, if it is much more transmissible than previous variants — which it appears to be — it could put hospitals under immense pressure.

Like many European countries, South Africa is now set to offer booster doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, with the rollout expected in January. A booster dose of the Johnson & Johnson jab is also expected to be greenlit for the general population imminently. 

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial. 

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