Isolating South Africa will not help in containing Omicron variant: top epidemiologist

Prof Salim Abdool-Kariman projected a dramatic rise in infections in the coming days but given the variant already surfaced in other countries, a travel ban will really be of little help.

Published: 01st December 2021 01:30 PM  |   Last Updated: 01st December 2021 01:30 PM   |  A+A-

Students from the Tshwane University of Technology make their way back to their residence in Pretoria, South Africa

Students from the Tshwane University of Technology make their way back to their residence in Pretoria, South Africa (Photo | AP)


JOHANNESBURG: Predicting a spike in COVID-19 cases in South Africa triggered by the Omicron variant in the coming days, one of the country's prominent epidemiologists has underlined that the last thing the world needs is panic and overreaction.

Trying to isolate South Africa will not help in containing the Omicron COVID-19 variant as already other countries have reported the new strain, Prof Salim Abdool-Kariman said.

Abdool-Karim was reacting to the international travel ban imposed on South Africa and its neighbouring nations by about 20 countries.

The discovery of the Omicron variant was first announced by South African scientists last week.

He was speaking at a briefing organised by the Department of Health on Monday in the wake of a national address by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who called the travel ban unfair and discriminatory.

"There are already 11 countries reporting cases of Omicron, so trying to isolate South Africa or even southern Africa is not really going to help, because pretty soon many other countries are going to become avenues for spread of the virus," Abdool-Karim said.

"The last thing we need is panic and overreaction. What we have seen is knee-jerk reactions," he said.

"We have dealt with variants before. It's not the first – our country has been among the first to describe variants before, so we know how to do this, including how to deal with variants with immune escape," the professor said.

"Just at a time when we have a new threat in this pandemic, when we should be standing together against the virus, we end up standing against other; we end up putting fences between us instead of dealing with this and understanding what the enemy is and how we need to tackle it together," he said.

Abdool-Karim suggested that strategies which are already in place for international travel are adequate to deal with the new variant.

"We have an existing five-step strategy that actually does very well in reducing travel transmission risk. That is by ensuring that only vaccinated people travel; (doing) symptom screening at boarding; ensuring that (passengers) have a negative PCR reading at boarding; that they have a mask during the flight and lastly you get a Covid test on arrival. That is the way in which we can protect ourselves. “You can add in additional requirements like quarantine (whether) self or mandated, but we can deal with this," he proposed.

Abdool-Karim projected a dramatic rise in infections in the coming days.

"We can expect that higher transmissibility is likely, so we are going to get more cases quickly. We are already seeing early evidence of this. I'‘m expecting that we will top over 10,000 cases (daily) by the end of the week; we'll see pressure on hospitals within the next two to three weeks. “Even if the outcome is not clinically worse, we are going to see this in all likelihood because of the rapidity of transmission, in the way that we saw with the Delta variant," he said.

He called for interventions to limit gatherings to control the spread of the virus.

"Our biggest challenge is going to be to prevent super-spreading events that will just put us out of control. One of the things is to restrict risky situations, particularly indoors, to vaccinated-only people. That is part of the strategy and the direction in which we should be heading," Abdool-Karim said.

“Omicron was first described in Botswana and shortly thereafter in South Africa.

The fact that it was picked up so early is a sign of the scientific success of the investment that our country has made in science.

South Africa and the world now need to convert that scientific success to a response success,” he said.

On Monday, the number of infections in the country almost doubled to 4,373 from the previous day's high of 2,273.


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