The World Health Organization on Thursday said that South Africa showed a rise in Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, but hospitalisations remained low across the country, where the strain was first detected in November, according to preliminary data.

“Data which looked at hospitalisations across South Africa between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU [intensive care unit] occupancy was only 6.3 % – which is very low compared with the same period when the country was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July,” the World Health Organization said in a press release.

The world health body added that in the same period, data from one of the regions most affected due to the Omicron variant showed that only 98 of the 1,200 hospitalised patients needed oxygen and only four of them had to be put on ventilator support.

However, WHO said that this data was based on a small sample size and most of patients admitted to hospitals were below the age of 40. “As the clinical profile of patients changes, the impact of Omicron may change,” it added.

Meanwhile in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said that nearly all of the 40 patients infected by the Omicron variant in the country had only mild symptoms, AP reported.

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the public health agency, added that over 75% of the patients had been inoculated against Covid-19.

The official said that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was working on a detailed analysis of the possible implications of the variant for the United States.

“What we generally know is the more mutations a variant has, the higher level you need your immunity to be,” she said. “[...]We want to make sure we bolster everybody’s immunity. And that’s really what motivated the decision to expand our guidance.”

Last month, the United States had allowed booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines for all adults.

Cases are surging, says WHO

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that weekly Covid-19 cases in Africa had risen by 93%.

The continent recorded over 1,07,000 cases in the week ending December 5, up from around 55,000 infections in the preceding week, it added.

“Five countries accounted for 86% of the cases reported over the past week and all the sub-regions in the continent – up from one the previous week – reported increases in new cases,” WHO said. “Southern Africa recorded the highest increase with a 140% hike mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.”

The World Health Organization expressed concern about the vaccination figures of African countries

“Only six of Africa’s 54 countries have reached the global target of vaccinating 40% of their population by the end of this year, leaving millions of people in our region without protection against Covid-19,” Dr Richard Mihigo, immunisation and vaccines development programme coordinator for the WHO Regional Office for Africa, said. “This is simply dangerous and untenable.”

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization regional director for Africa, flagged vaccine inequity.

“What we do know is that uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines globally is creating an ideal environment for variants to emerge and spread explosively and regions with the least access to vaccines seem likely to suffer the most,” Moeti added. “With the end-of-year travel and festivities upon us, limited vaccination, rising Covid-19 cases and the new variant paint an ominous picture for our region.”

Risk of reinfection could be more with Omicron

Emerging data suggests that the Omicron variant of coronavirus might re-infect people more easily, but the severity of the disease could be milder than in cases of the Delta strain, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday.

At a media briefing of the global health body, Ghebreyesus emphasised on the need for further data on the new variant to draw more accurate conclusions. He also advised people not be complacent about the disease.

“Many of those who don’t die could be left battling long Covid, or post-Covid condition, a disease with debilitating, lingering symptoms that we are only beginning to understand,” he said.

Post-coronavirus health problems that continue for four or more weeks after infection are termed as long Covid, according to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The WHO chief urged countries to accelerate vaccine coverage, prioritise inoculation of citizens who are at greater risk of contracting the virus and scale up surveillance. He also exhorted them to increase efforts to conduct genome sequencing, and to “share samples with the global community”.

Ghebreyesus urged countries to avoid “ineffective and discriminatory” travel bans that have been imposed by several national governments on multiple African countries since the discovery of the Omicron variant last month.

“I’m pleased that France and Switzerland have lifted their travel bans on southern African countries, and I urge other countries to follow their lead,” he said.

At the media briefing, Mike Ryan, the head of the global health organisation’s emergencies programme, also said that existing data indicated that the Omicron variant is probably getting transmitted more easily than the Delta variant, AFP reported.

He added that this did not mean that the virus was unstoppable. “And therefore we have to redouble our efforts to break those chains of transmission to protect ourselves to protect others,” Ryan said.