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WHO raises alarm on Covid-19 reinfection as Omicron drives fourth wave in SA


The World Health Organization said evidence suggested an increased risk of infection.

File picture: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

SCIENTISTS at the World Health Organization (WHO) have sounded the alarm bells over Covid-19 reinfection and other variants as top of their list of concerns.

Globally, at least 371 cases of Omicron have been identified in 24 countries, some of which have had no links with South Africa.

The WHO held a global press conference on Friday with scientists, doctors and professors, including South African Professor Anne Von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases ( NICD).

While 15 countries have implemented a travel ban since the discovery of the Omicron variant, scientists, doctors and professors are concerned this could hamper the exchange of samples for testing and much-needed equipment.

In a statement, the WHO said that evidence suggested an increased risk of infection.

“Omicron has a high number of mutations (32) in its spike protein, and preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection when compared with other variants of concern.”

While South Africa stood at 11,535 new Covid-19 cases with 44 deaths, laboratory work will tell whether those who had been infected with older variants previously are included in the new Omicron data.

Von Gottberg said that in the case of reinfection, people who had previously had a positive test 90 days prior to the present one and that it was too early to say whether it was a reinfection from someone who had the Delta variant: “For the month of November, we have 249 which have been sequenced, The Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa, and of those 183 have confirmed to be Omicron.

“Overall, what worries us is that we have a system in place to look at reinfection, so we monitor using our testing database, a database that has PCR, antigen tests, we monitor the first test and see the other tests as they come in and we call a reinfection from another test from the same individual, 90 days after the first positive test.

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

Von Gottberg said previous infection did not protect individuals from infection of Omicron, but against severe disease.

“That sort of speaks to the fact that in our population, where many people had a previous infection, we believe that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron.

“However, hopefully, it will provide them with protection from severe disease and hospital admissions and death.

“There are preliminary analyses by the NICD, trying to understand Omicron when people talk about increased transmission.

“In this case, this virus might be transmissible with its own characteristics, maybe slightly similar or different from Delta. We believe, however, vaccines will protect you against severe disease, and we have seen protection in the vaccines.”

She stressed that it was too early to say how many people could be reinfected.

“It is difficult to quantify how much reinfection there is because it is so early. We have to accept that this is the first few weeks of Omicron’s emergence. The exact quantity of infections is difficult to quantify. Whether the Delta individuals, who had Delta, have reinfection, that is also too early.”

Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, the Regional Emergency Director at the WHO, said the origin of Omicron was a process of investigation: “When we detect a virus starting its evolution, usually we will detect it weeks after it started its evolution.

“The only thing we are sure about is when a country detects a virus, is that country’s severance system is good, that is what happened in Southern Africa.”

As intake and hospitalisation increased for children, Von Gottberg said they had shown no severity:

“All the data has shown that children have a less clinical course. We have had some anecdotal reports from hospitals in South Africa. They are seeing a few more children inside hospitals and admitting them, but many of them have an uncomplicated course, lasting a few days.”

The global panel of doctors and scientists also expressed concern about the travel ban affecting their exchange of data, samples and equipment.

Von Gottberg said: “There are fewer flights to choose from to bring in reagents equipment and to send out specimens.”

Meanwhile, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said it’s quite confident that we will soon see a reversal of the travel bans. Aside from some European countries, the UK and US, which placed southern Africa on the red list, Dirco said it was shocking that Mauritius, Egypt, Rwanda and the Seychelles followed suit.

Deputy Director-General: Public Diplomacy at Dirco Clayson Monyela said they had taken note of the African countries who placed SA on the travel ban. “All it takes is for one of the influential countries to reverse the ban, and the others will follow. SA is not in the wrong. We have science on our side, ” he said.

Dirco accused the countries who supported the travel ban against Southern African countries of playing politics.

“We have helped so many of them. It’s purely a knee-jerk reaction, even the WHO has said that closing borders will not prevent the spread of the Omicron variant. The ban is unfair, unwarranted and unscientific,” he said.

Monyela said behind-the-scenes talks are taking place with various ministers and their international counterparts but stressed that SA is not on the defensive.

“We are in urgent talks with countries like the UK to urgently reverse the travel ban. Lockdown has been devastating for the tourism sector. This is, in fact, an economic ban,” he said.

Acting spokesperson in the Presidency Tyrone Seal said president Cyril Ramaphosa had on several occasions this week reiterated South Africa’s rejection of travel restrictions for the reasons advanced by several countries in the wake of the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“These restrictions are unscientific, irrational and discriminatory, and should be ended by the countries concerned. South Africa has stringent and effective measures in place to combat the spread of the cororanvirus. These measures apply to outbound and inbound travel to ensure the safety of South Africans travelling outside the country, as well as the safety of international visitors who wish to enjoy the diverse experiences and hospitality South Africa has to offer.”

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