South Africa is already into its fifth wave of Covid infections driven by the omicron lineage BA.4 and BA.5, which could resemble the previous wave in size and severity, according to health experts.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases on Wednesday announced the country’s biggest jump in new cases since January of 10 017 and an increase of 164 hospital admissions, with a 25.3% positivity rate.
Although the fifth wave was likely to be less severe, according to professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi, SA has been in a fifth wave for the past two to three weeks – especially Gauteng – as it might have peaked with the recent resurgence.
“Most importantly, hospitalisation and death rates have increased, but are substantially lower than with first three waves and possibly even lower than with the omicron wave,” he said.
Madhi also said the resurgence should be interpreted with caution, especially when trying to make comparisons with the past, and although there was no need to panic, the focus should mainly be on getting at least 90% of people older than 50 years vaccinated with three doses.
“Lockdown will be only detrimental and of limited value in dealing with the resurgence. There is now extensive immunity against severe Covid from past infection,” he said.
Senior Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Dr Ridhwaan Suliman said the current rate of infections confirmed SA had been within the new wave for some time.
However, he said, there wasn’t any sign that BA.4 and BA.5 caused more severe disease than BA.1 and BA.2.
“Case incidences are now at 11.9 per 100 000 and up to 30.4% of the previous peak, but it is fine and we shouldn’t read that with fear, anxiety, or panic,” he said.
“The situation is different to two years ago, although it has come at a price. At this stage, two years from the start of the pandemic, SA did not have high levels of immunity; many people were infected so now they have natural immunity in combination with acquired immunity.”
The department of health has maintained SA was still on the verge of the fifth wave and that it was still too early to declare it.
However, to avoid a surge in hospitalisations, people should ensure they’re vaccinated and boosted.
“We urge people to vaccinate and adhere to preventative measures. Almost 50% of the target population have been vaccinated. We administered over 35 million doses,” the department’s spokesperson Foster Mohale said.
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Tabling his department’s budget in parliament on Tuesday, Health Minister Joe Phaahla also said SA was not yet in the fifth wave.
“As a country, we have witnessed four waves of Covid and we are now [speculating] as to whether we are already in the fifth wave, or if it is still coming,” said Phaahla.
“Indications are that we are not yet in the fifth wave, but as the cold weather takes hold and we spend more time indoors, the risk of the fifth wave continues to loom large.”