Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

A research team has tracked reinfections in South Africa and reported a jump with the arrival of Omicron, which they had not seen as two previous variants, including the extra contagious delta variant, moved through the country.

The results, which were published online on Thursday, are preliminary and have not yet undergone scientific review. The researchers also did not say which part of the reinfections were confirmed as Omicron cases – or whether they caused serious illness.

The advent of Omicron has thrown a key in the work of travel plans for many Australians and visa holders hoping to fly in Australia in early December.
The advent of Omicron has thrown a key in the work of travel plans for many Australians and visa holders hoping to fly in Australia in early December. (Bloomberg)

But the timing of the re-infection rise suggests that Omicron “demonstrates significant evidence at the population level for evading immunity from previous infection,” they wrote.

“Previous infection used to protect against Delta, and now with Omicron that does not seem to be the case,” one of the researchers, Anne von Gottberg from the University of Witwatersrand, said at a WHO briefing on Thursday.

The study also did not examine the protection that vaccination offers. Coronavirus vaccines trigger different layers of immune response, some to ward off infection and others to prevent serious illness if someone becomes infected.

“However, we believe that vaccines will still protect against serious illness,” said Dr. von Gottberg.

South Africa has accelerated its vaccination campaign by providing plug-ins in shopping malls and transport hubs to combat the rapidly rising new cases of COVID-19.
South Africa has accelerated its vaccination campaign by providing plug-ins in shopping malls and transport hubs to combat the rapidly rising new cases of COVID-19. (AP)

Dr. Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, said that re-infection appears in the nose, but that does not necessarily translate into serious illness, while vaccines have generally been shown to help protect the rest of the body.

“The data we are really looking at is going to be about the severity of the infection and whether the vaccines continue to protect against serious illness, hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Ryan. “And right now there’s no reason to assume they do not want to. We just have not got the details yet.”

The latest variant was discovered just over a week ago by researchers in South Africa and Botswana, and it has now been found in several countries. Much remains to be done about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

A throat swab is taken from a patient to test for COVID-19 at a facility in Soweto, South Africa.
A throat swab is taken from a patient to test for COVID-19 at a facility in Soweto, South Africa. (AP)

But it is important to learn how much protection is provided by previous infection, especially in parts of the world where a large proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated.

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The study suggests that “Omicron will be able to overcome natural and likely vaccine-induced immunity to a significant degree,” said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, in a written response to the findings. How much “is still unclear, though it is doubtful whether this will represent complete escape.”

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