South Africa has Omicron behind them and their good news could be a ray of hope for the US

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Johannesburg — Just eight weeks after the world first heard about it Omicron variant of Coronavirus, as researchers in South Africa who discovered the strain notified global authorities, that country’s wave of infections has fallen as much as it has risen. Not only that, South Africa weathered its fourth wave of COVID-19 with very little disruption to people’s lives.

CBS News foreign correspondent Debora Patta reports that in the Johannesburg suburbs, restaurants are once again full, traffic is slow and the city is bustling.

Omicron quickly became the focus of global concern as infections spread across South Africa at a tremendous rate. Within days, the country was at the epicenter of the pandemic. And then… well, not much happened at all.

“A little relaxed”

Patta and her team have been monitoring a COVID ward at a hospital in Gauteng province, which includes metropolitan Johannesburg and capital Pretoria, during the pandemic. Six months ago, during the nationwide battle with the Delta variant, the hospital was overwhelmed. Beds and oxygen in the intensive care unit were running out and the death rate was rising rapidly.

Third wave of COVID-19 hits fragile South Africa…

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“You’re human before you become a nurse, so it’s very, very hard to see people dying like that,” exhausted nurse Justice Mangala told CBS News at the time.

However, during the Omicron wave, it looked like a very different hospital. It’s about half empty, very few patients need oxygen — and staff are under a lot less pressure.

This time, Mangala told Patta, he could count the dead on his ward with one hand.

“I’m a little reassured,” he said, “now that we have this second line of defense, which is our vaccine.”

“A turning point in this pandemic”

The vaccines, combined with high rates of previous infection, have boosted South Africa’s collective immunity to the coronavirus, dramatically so, according to vaccinator Professor Shabir Madhi reduced the rate of serious illness and death during the fourth wave.

“The Omicron wave now accounts for less than 5% of all deaths that have occurred due to COVID-19 [in South Africa] since the beginning of the pandemic,” Madhi told Patta. He believes that although many more variants will emerge, the acute phase of the pandemic, with its devastating death toll, may well be over.

“I am very optimistic that we have reached a tipping point in this pandemic,” he said. “I can’t imagine looking back at what we experienced over the course of the first three waves in South Africa.”

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Some high-income countries have warned against over-reliance on South Africa’s data, citing disparities in population ages and high infection rates there that have boosted immunity. And that came at a cost: while Omicron may be responsible for relatively few of them, South Africa lost about 94,000 people to the virus — a significant number in a country of fewer than 60 million people.

Among those urging caution in the US is President Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, who said Monday it remained “an open question” whether Omicron would eventually be seen as the deathblow to the pandemic. “I would hope that is the case. But that would only be the case if we didn’t get another variant that evaded the immune response of the previous variant.”

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, meanwhile, stressed to CNN that many places in the US were still seeing steep increases in cases and hospitalizations, and he said the country “shouldn’t expect a national peak in the next few days.”

OR Tambo International Airport after the lifting of the EU Southern Africa travel ban
Passengers look at flight information boards in the departure terminal of OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, January 11, 2022.

Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty


But Madhi and other scientists in South Africa still struggle to understand their foreign colleagues’ reluctance to learn from the country’s experience — particularly given the widespread uptake of vaccines in the US and Europe and the firm belief that the vaccines are a good one Offer protection against serious diseases and death, with all variants that have appeared so far.

South Africa is not alone either. There are also signs in the UK that the Omicron wave – which hit just as fast as South Africa – is waning, with infections falling sharply in recent days and no steep rise in deaths attributed to the Omicron wave. Scientists are optimistic that COVID-19 could soon be called an endemic disease rather than an epidemic in the UK.

A disease is considered endemic when it remains circulating within a population, but with relatively little spread and no serious public health impact. So when the country or region in question learns to live with it, like the flu or other common colds caused by coronaviruses.

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Fauci said in his remarks Monday that even if omicron infections finally peak nationally in the U.S., the coronavirus is unlikely to simply go away, indicating a shift from pandemic to endemic.

“We’re almost there, it’s the beginning of the end now, at least in the UK,” Professor Julian Hiscox, head of infection and global health at the University of Liverpool, who is a member of a state health advisory board, told CBS News’ partner network BBC News . “I think life in 2022 will be almost like it was before the pandemic.”

“If a new variant or an old variant shows up, like any other common cold coronavirus, most of us get a runny nose and a bit of a headache and we’re fine,” Hiscox said.

While case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths are still rising rapidly in many parts of the US, they are declining rapidly in New York City, one of the first places in the country to be hit hard by Omicron.

With the data trend in the Big Apple very similar to that in South Africa and the UK, there is growing hope that the good news from Johannesburg will prove to be a harbinger of better news, at least for the United States.



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