Coronavirus cases in South Africa have soared by 92 per cent in 24 hours, just days after the country’s scientists sounded the alarm about the Omicron variant.
Leading virologist Tulio de Oliveira described the surge in infections as ‘scary’ as he urged the public to get vaccinated and use face masks.
In the space of two weeks, the Omicron variant has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to rapid growth of new confirmed cases.
More than ten per cent of those tested for Covid across South Africa have tested positive, official data showed, as 4,473 cases were recorded on Tuesday – an increase of 92 per cent compared to the day before.
But scientists in the country have warned that the vast majority of people who end up being hospitalised with the Omicron variant are unvaccinated.
De Oliveira said on Twitter: ‘Goodness me! Scary increase of cases and positivity rate in South Africa. Please keep safe, use a mask and go for vaccination as 1000s of scientists in the world try to understand better.’
Coronavirus cases in South Africa have soared by 92 per cent in 24 hours, just days after the country’s scientists sounded the alarm about the Omicron variant
More than ten per cent of those tested for Covid across South Africa have tested positive, official data showed, as 4,473 cases were recorded on Tuesday – an increase of 92 per cent compared to the day before
A healthcare worker conducts a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on Tuesday
A healthcare worker speaker to a woman queuing for a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg on Tuesday
Leading virologist Tulio de Oliveira described the surge in infections as ‘scary’ as he urged the public to get vaccinated and use face masks
A total of 42,664 tests were conducted in the last 24 hours, with 4,373 new cases reported, data from The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa revealed.
That is a 92 per cent increase compared to the 2,273 cases recorded on Monday.
The number infections represents a 10.2 per cent positivity rate, which is the percentage of those tested who are infected with the virus.
While numbers of confirmed cases are still relatively low, they have been increasing at a high rate. The new spike started after some student parties in Pretoria. Numbers quickly jumped from a few hundred cases a day to thousands.
The NICD said that Covid cases, including that of the Omicron varient, were highest in the province of Gauteng – in particular in the city of Pretoria.
Doctors have warned that the unvaccinated are much more likely to end up in hospital if they are infected with the new variant, with 87% of admissions being patients who have not been jabbed.
‘Most of our daily increases at this stage are from Gauteng, at about 81 per cent,’ said Mr Michelle Groome, the head of the division of public health surveillance and response at the NICD.
‘There has been a tremendous increase in the past 10 to 14 days,’ she added.
Meanwhile Dr Waasila Jassat, of the NICD, said that unvaccinated patients are suffering more severe symptoms compared to the jabbed, and were much more likely to end up in hospital if they were infected with the Omicron variant.
Dr Jassat also warned that a higher number of children under the age of two are becoming ill with the virus, adding that ‘we may need to look at paediatric bed preparedness’.
A further 21 Covid deaths were reported in the last 24 hours in South Africa, bringing the total fatalities to 89,843.
Meanwhile Dr Waasila Jassat, of the NICD, said that unvaccinated patients are suffering more severe symptoms compared to the jabbed, and were much more likely to end up in hospital if they were infected with the Omicron variant. Pictured: A woman received a Covid vaccine in Cape Town, South Africa on Tuesday
Head of Moderna warns ‘it will be MONTHS’ before there is a specific jab to fight Omicron
Covid vaccine maker Moderna warned today that it will take months to develop an Omicron-specific booster jab as Scotland detected three more cases of the mutant strain.
Stephane Bancel, chief executive at Massachusetts-based vaccine manufacturer, said he expects the highly-evolved Covid variant to cause a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, warning that the result was ‘not going to be good’.
He warned that it will take until summer 2022 for Moderna to develop a new vaccine and scale up manufacturing to vaccinate entire populations.
Scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta. The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it’s less clear how it will impact hospitalisations and deaths.
Britain yesterday expanded its current booster rollout for all adults over 18. Even though the vaccines are expected to be much weaker against Omicron, it is hoped that topping up everyone’s immunity to very high levels will offer an extra line of defence against the incoming wave.
Scottish health authorities announced three more Omicron cases overnight, bringing the UK total to 14. Labs across the country are probing hundreds more probable cases and there are signs the strainis already spreading in the community.
Boris Johnson will hold a Downing Street press conference this afternoon to give an update on the Covid situation and lay out the suite of measures that kicked in this morning to tackle the variant.
From 4am, face masks were again compulsory in shops and on public transport in England. Those who are close contacts of potential Omicron cases must also self-isolate for ten days, regardless of vaccination status. Double-vaccinated people arriving in the UK are now also required to self-isolate for two days, and only leave their homes when they have received a negative PCR test.
But UK public health chiefs have warned people to avoid socialising before Christmas ‘unless you need to’ to help curb the spread of the virus. There are also calls for masks to return in restaurants, pubs and bars.
A SAGE scientist said the UK was ‘very well prepared’ to combat another variant. Professor Paul Moss said expanding the booster programme will turbo-charge immunity to ‘super-high’ levels to help keep the Omicron variant at bay.
Mr Bancel told the Financial Times: ‘There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level… we had with Delta.
‘I think it’s going to be a material drop [in vaccine effectiveness]. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to… are like “this is not going to be good”.’
He added that some two to three billion doses could be delivered by his company before the end of next year, but that it was dangerous to shift all production to an Omicron-specific shot while other countries were still battling a wave of the Delta variant.
Experts have warned the early round of infections has been among the young and the situation may become more serious if the new surge affects older, unvaccinated South Africans. In all, 41% of those aged 18 and over are vaccinated — but young people have been particularly slow to step forward.
At least three South African universities — the University of Cape Town, Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Free State in Bloemfontein — have announced that vaccinations will be mandatory for students starting next year. Some experts think further measures will be needed.
‘I do think that the decision that South Africa is going to have to make is probably around mandatory vaccination,’ said Mosa Moshabela, professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.
Demand for the vaccine has been so sluggish that the government recently requested slower deliveries to allow it time to use up its current stock of 19 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson shots.
In an address to the nation on Sunday, a solemn President Ramaphosa urged people to get vaccinated quickly.
‘Tonight, I would like to call on every person who has not been vaccinated to go to their nearest vaccination station without delay,’ he said. ‘If there is someone in your family or among your friends who is not vaccinated, I call on you to encourage them to get vaccinated.’
South Africa’s Health Department Mark van den Heever has urged the public to get vaccinated against Covid as the new variant runs rife.
‘Given the high transmissibility of this variant, we strongly encourage all eligible persons who are not yet vaccinated to do so, as it is their best defence against severe illness and even death,’ he said.
South Africa first reported the Omicron variant to the World Health Organisation on November 24.
But Dutch health authorities today revealed that the variant was already in the Netherlands five days before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The RIVM health institute found the mutant Covid strain in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
But the WHO said South Africa first reported the the variant to the UN health agency on November 24 – meaning the new variant was already being transferred around the world before anyone even knew it existed.
The RIVM said the two samples from PCR tests showed an abnormality in their spike protein and were sent to a lab for further studies.
The results have now been returned and confirmed as the Omicron variant.
It is not known whether these earlier cases were identified in travelers who had returned from South Africa, or whether they originated elsewhere.
But it could call into question the origins of the new variant which has led to travel restrictions on certain countries.
Travel bans have been criticised by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.
Much is still not known about the variant – though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is ‘very high’ and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig, meanwhile, said Tuesday they had confirmed an infection with the omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, news agency dpa reported.
Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rates.
Meanwhile, Japan and France announced their first cases of the new variant on Tuesday.
French authorities confirmed its presence in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had traveled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.
The man was placed in quarantine. He has ‘muscle pain and fatigue,’ Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.
A day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant, Japan also confirmed its first case, in a visitor who had traveled from Namibia.
A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.
Travel bans also continued to fall Tuesday.
Cambodia barred entry to travelers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the variant.
The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers.
While it has urged against border closures, the WHO has stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
WHO said there are ‘considerable uncertainties’ about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far.
But they warn that it is early and most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from Covid-19 as older patients.
Pfizer boss says the Omicron variant is UNLIKELY to cause severe illness in fully-vaccinated people as UK’s Covid infections fall 6.5% in a week to 39,716 and hospital admissions drop 6% amid fears of a new winter wave
By Joe Davies for MailOnline
The boss of BioNTech believes the Omicron variant is unlikely to cause severe illness in people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer shot amid fears of a new winter wave.
Dr Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the Germany-based company and Pfizer’s Covid vaccine manufacturing partner, told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the variant can cause breakthrough infections at a higher rate.
However, once in the body, the variant would likely be destroyed.
He said: ‘If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease – the T-cells.
‘Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells.’
Dr Sahin claimed that a vaccinated person will have the immune system capacity necessary to defeat the mutated virus, and encouraged people to get their booster shots when they can.
Many experts have feared that the Covid vaccines would not be effective against the variant because of how many mutations it has of the spike protein that the vaccines target.
But the BioNTech chief added: ‘Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot.’
Britain’s Covid crisis shrunk on all three fronts today, official figures show despite eight new cases of the Omicron variant being discovered in England prompting No10 to announce a mammoth new booster drive.
Department of Health bosses posted 39,716 new positive tests over the last 24 hours, down 6.5 per cent on last Tuesday’s figure of 42,484.
It was the fourth day in a row cases have fallen, despite the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announcing it has sequenced the supermutant strain in Barnet and Haringey in London, Liverpool, North Norfolk and Sutton.
The number of people dying with the virus also fell 3.6 per cent to 159 today, down from 165 recorded last week.
And hospitalisations dropped to 718 on Friday, the latest date that data is available for. It was down 6.1 per cent on the previous week and marked the fourteenth day admissions had fallen.
The figures come as Boris Johnson pledged to deliver third doses to all adults by the end of January to shield the nation against the new variant.
The Prime Minister announced he is drafting in the Army again to help deliver the programme and will offer GPs an extra £15 for every injection as he promised to deliver another ‘great British vaccination effort’.
A £5 bonus will be given to GPs per shot if they do them on Sundays and they will get a £30 premium for shots delivered to the most vulnerable who are unable to leave their homes. The Government is also recruiting 10,000 more paid vaccine volunteers and ‘tens of thousands’ more volunteers to help with the mammoth drive.
But it will likely mean fewer face face-to-face GP appointments for non-Covid patients, which are already running at about a fifth lower than pre-pandemic level.
Dr Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the Germany-based company and Pfizer’s Covid vaccine manufacturing partner, said on Tuesday that the jab provides people with two levels of protection from the virus
The Covid booster programme: Key points
– Every adult over the age of 18 in the UK will be offered a coronavirus booster jab by the end of January
– Jabs will be offered in five year descending age groups, starting with older adults and those who are most vulnerable before moving down
– The NHS will contact people when they are eligible to book an appointment for a jab
– There will be 1,500 community pharmacy sites to administer jabs and all will be told to increase capacity
– Extra vaccination hubs will open at hospitals across the country while temporary vaccine centres will also be set up
– 30 hospitals are already offering jabs to the public and dozens more will follow suit
– Combined there will be nearly 3,000 sites across the UK offering vaccinations
– At least 400 military personnel will be deployed to assist NHS staff and volunteers to deliver the jabs
– The UK has delivered 18million boosters already which is more than any other country apart from the US and China.
– That is the equivalent of 27.2 per cent of the whole UK population. Some 53million will eventually be eligible and 22m are eligible now.
– Community pharmacists will be incentivised to deliver more jabs, with the payment for standard delivery of a vaccination increased to £15 a shot.
– An extra £5 per shot will be offered to pharmacists if they work on Sundays
– A £30 premium will be offered to pharmacists for vaccinations delivered to people who are housebound
– The Care Quality Commission will continue a pause on routine inspections of general practice to free up clinicians’ time
– The NHS is looking at eliminating the 15 minute wait post-vaccination to increase the number of people who can access smaller venues
– The NHS is recruiting for up to 10,000 new paid vaccinator roles as well as for an army of ‘tens of thousands’ of new volunteers to help with the drive
In other coronavirus developments today:
- Mr Johnson and Mr Javid today tried to quell hospitality fears after health experts suggested it was ‘sensible’ for people to limit socialising over the festive period;
- The Prime Minister said he does not agree with Dr Jenny Harries, who urged people not to socialise if they do not need to in the run-up to Christmas, and was asked if Christmas parties should be cancelled;
- He said he does not think a repeat of the ‘pingdemic’ is likely to happen because Omicron case numbers remain low for the time being;
- Mr Johnson said he thought it ‘extremely unlikely’ that another lockdown would required but that he was ruling nothing out;
- The Prime Minister said the Government does not want people to cancel Christmas parties or nativity plays;
- NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said she was aiming to free up capacity to allow hospitals, GPs and other services to administer more booster jabs;
- Ms Pritchard said they were looking at ‘how to cut other burdens on GPs to administer boosters’.
Scientists have cautioned that the boosters will probably not give the same level of protection against Omicron as they do against Delta because the new strain is so evolved.
But No10 hopes that the top-up in immunity will give people at least some extra protection against the variant.
Moderna warned today that a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, particularly against infection.
But Pfizer has said it fully expects the current vaccines to provide high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death. Both firms are working on Omicron-specific booster shots that will be available from about mid 2022.
Mr Johnson told the Downing Street briefing that new vaccination centres will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’ to get boosters in arms over the coming months, following reports that dozens of elderly and vulnerable around the country were struggling to get their jabs before the booster drive was expanded.
He said ‘proportional’ restrictions including compulsory face masks on public transport and in shops, nail salons and hairdressers have been brought in to buy time for scientists to ‘crack the Omicron code’ and would not remain in place ‘a minute longer than necessary’.
But there are concerns about whether the booster drive will be able to cope with the surge in demand. Even before the programme was expanded, there was a backlog of more than 7milllion people.
Of the 25million Britons over the age of 40 who were eligible yesterday, just 18million had come forward for one.
The new guidance change means that eventually 53million people aged 18 and above will be eligible, so long as it has been three months since their second dose.
An extra 6.9million people over the age of 40 were instantly made eligible when the new advice kicked in, as well as 7million Britons between 18 and 39. In total, 40million people are eligible today.
Speaking at a Downing Street Press Conference this evening, Mr Johnson said: ‘Now is the time for another great British vaccination effort. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, let’s not give this virus another chance.’
Boris Johnson today called on all Britons aged 18 and over to come forward for their booster by the end of January as the best line of defence against the new Omicron supermutant Covid variant
Vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer are already working on Covid vaccines that could tackle the Omicron strain, if it poses a problem for the current crop of vaccines, but they won’t be ready until mid-2022
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties
DON’T cancel Christmas parties! Boris and Saj try to quell hospitality fears
Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid today tried to quell hospitality fears after health experts suggested it was ‘sensible’ for people to limit socialising over the festive period.
The Prime Minister urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays as he promised to ‘throw everything’ at the booster vaccination campaign to tackle the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
He promised that everyone eligible would be offered a jab by the end of January with at least 400 military personnel helping the NHS, and vaccination centres ‘popping up like Christmas trees’.
Mr Johnson rejected a call from a senior health official to limit socialising in the run-up to Christmas, insisting that he had already put in place a package of ‘balanced and proportionate measures’ in response to the threat posed by the new variant.
But as cases of Omicron reached 22 in the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they were likely to go higher and ‘we have to be realistic’ that there is already likely to be transmission of the new strain within the community.
He added that people should get vaccinated to ‘give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones’.
Mr Javid said: ‘What we’re seeing recently has brought back memories of the strain of the last winter. But although we can’t say with certainty what lies ahead, we have one huge advantage that we didn’t have back then: our vaccination programme, which has already done so much to keep this virus at bay.
‘But these defences will only keep us safe if we use them. This is a national mission and we all have a role to play.
‘If we want to give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones, the best thing we can all do is step up, roll up our sleeves, and get protected when the time comes.’
The booster rollout has been plagued by problems since launching in September, however, which has raised concerns about whether it can cope with the increased capacity.
GPs say they are too busy trying to deal with record non-Covid care backlogs that have amassed during the pandemic and figures show there are a third fewer mass vaccination hubs giving out boosters now compared to the initial vaccine rollout.
Vulnerable patients say they’ve had to wait weeks to get a booster appointment because most are being administered in local pharmacies that are operating with limited staff and during limited hours.
Mr Johnson spoke out amid grave concerns in the NHS about his 500,000 jabs a day target to outpace Omicron — as ministers lined up GPs to do the work but doctors claimed they are ‘burnt out’ and warned more face-to-face appointments with patients will have to go if they are expected to help.
Today the Health Service Journal reported that from December 1, doctors will receive £15 for each jab given from Monday to Saturday – up from £12.58. This will reach £20 for Sunday and Bank Holiday vaccinations until the end of January. The pay for jabs in care homes and houses will also rise.
One NHS chief executive said getting GPs to lead the surge was ‘a very big ask, on top of many other very big asks’, adding it would be extremely difficult to reach the 3.5million rate due to a lack of medics, volunteers and facilities after a third of vaccination centres closed this summer.
A GP practice manager tweeted: ‘Cash won’t make much difference, it’s the workload & workforce that’s the problem. Is not just jabbers but the back room engine tracking and calling patients, organising rotas, sorting out logistics etc’.
Soldiers will also be called back. Some are currently helping deliver the vaccine in Scotland but not in England. Before they were stood down in July, as well as putting jabs in arms, they also co-ordinated distribution of the vaccines and set up vaccination centres.
Tens of thousands of volunteers and retired doctors and nurses who helped over the past 12 months will also be needed again this winter.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ve already done almost 18 million boosters across the UK but we’ve got millions more to do to protect the most vulnerable.
‘Then we’ll move down the cohorts rapidly, and working together with the devolved administrations we want to ramp up capacity across the whole United Kingdom to the levels we achieved in the previous vaccination effort.
‘We’re going to be throwing everything at it in order to ensure that everyone eligible is offered that booster, as I say, in just over two months.’