Our scientists identified a new variant of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The World Health Organization has named it Omicron and has declared it a ‘variant of concern’.
The Omicron variant was first described in Botswana and subsequently in South Africa, and scientists have also identified cases in Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Israel.
Excellent work by South African scientists
The early identification of this variant is a result of the excellent work done by scientists in South Africa. We are one of the countries in the world that set up a surveillance network throughout the country to help us monitor the behaviour of COVID-19.
This early detection and the work that has already gone in to understanding its properties and possible effects, mean that we are better equipped to respond to the variant. We pay tribute to all our scientists who are world-renowned and widely respected and have demonstrated that they have a deep knowledge of epidemiology.
What do we know about Omicron?
There are still a number of things about the variant that we don’t know, and that scientists in South Africa and elsewhere in the world are still hard at work to establish.
This increase has been centred in Gauteng, although cases are also rising in other provinces. We have seen an average of 1 600 new cases in the last seven days, compared to just 500 new daily cases in the previous week, and 275 new daily cases the week before that. The proportion of COVID-19 tests that are positive has risen from around 2% to 9% in less than a week.
This is an extremely sharp rise in infections in a short space of time. If cases continue to climb, we can expect to enter a fourth wave of infections within the next few weeks, if not sooner.
Epidemiologists and disease modellers have told us that we should expect a fourth wave in early December. Scientists have also told us to expect the emergence of new variants. There are several concerns about the Omicron variant, and we are still not sure exactly how it will behave going forward.
However, we already have the tools that we need to protect ourselves against it. We know enough about the variant to know what we need to do to reduce transmission and to protect ourselves against severe disease and death.
Since we launched our public vaccination programme in May 2021, over 25 million vaccine doses have been administered in South Africa. It is by far the most extensive health intervention undertaken in this country in such a short period of time.
Forty-one percent of the adult population have received at least one vaccine dose, and 35.6% of adult South Africans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Significantly, 57% of people 60 years old and above are fully vaccinated, and 53% of people aged between 50 and 60 are fully vaccinated.
While this is welcome progress, it is not enough to enable us to reduce infections, prevent illness and death and restore our economy.
Vaccination against COVID-19 is free.
I call on every person who has not been vaccinated to go to their nearest vaccination station without delay. If there is someone in your family or among your friends who is not vaccinated, encourage them to get vaccinated.
Vaccination is by far the most important way to protect yourself and those around you against the Omicron variant, to reduce the impact of the fourth wave and to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for.
Vaccination is also vital to the return of our economy to full operation, to the resumption of travel and to the recovery of vulnerable sectors like tourism and hospitality.
There is now overwhelming evidence that the proper and consistent wearing of a cloth mask or other suitable face covering over both the nose and mouth is the best way to prevent the transmission of the virus from one person to another.
End-of-year parties and matric year-end raves as well as other celebrations should ideally be postponed, and every person should think twice before attending or organising a gathering.
Where gatherings do take place, all the necessary COVID protocols must be closely observed.
Every additional contact we have increases our risk of becoming infected or infecting someone else.