At the Multi-Ministry Taskforce press conference on 30 November, it was explained that the Omicron variant is an unknown threat. That is why measures were immediately taken to reduce the risk of the variant establishing itself in our community, while the Ministry of Health (MOH) works with its international counterparts to find out more about the variant. Over the past several days, MOH has been reviewing reports from South Africa and other countries that have reported COVID-19 cases with the Omicron variant, and has actively engaged scientific experts in various affected countries to obtain first-hand information. This press release updates our understanding of the Omicron variant, even while many questions remain with no clear answers.
2. Antigen rapid tests (ART). We have been closely monitoring studies on the sensitivity of ARTs to the Omicron variant. The analysis so far has indicated that, in addition to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, ARTs are also effective as a method of detecting COVID-19 infection, including Omicron cases. Testing therefore remains key to our early detection and initial containment of transmission.
3. Transmissibility. Early clinical observations from South Africa and globally suggest that the variant may have increased transmissibility. It may also be associated with a higher risk of re-infection, compared to the Delta and Beta variants. This means that there is a higher likelihood of individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to be re-infected with the Omicron variant.
4. Severity. Cases who have been detected around the world have mostly displayed mild symptoms, and no Omicron-related deaths have been reported so far. Common symptoms reported include sore throat, tiredness and cough.
5. In particular, while there were more Omicron-related hospitalisations among young adults and children in South Africa, this could be contributed by two factors. First, high infection rates amongst the population. Second, there have been reports that these are also due to existing patients who were being hospitalised for non-COVID-19 related illnesses being tested positive for the Omicron variant, and the patients mostly experienced mild symptoms.
6. Having said that, it is early days to conclude on the severity of the disease. The outbreak was first detected in a University town with a younger demographic. According to the South African health experts, any hospitalisation stays for this demographic thus far have been short, of about one to two days. In the coming weeks, we will need to obtain more information about infections in older individuals to assess if the variant is more severe than the Delta variant.
7. Vaccinations. There is an emerging view amongst scientists around the world that existing COVID-19 vaccines will still work on the Omicron variant, especially in protecting people against severe illness. However, studies on vaccine effectiveness for infection and severe disease compared to previous variants are ongoing. More information on the variant’s biological behaviour is expected to become available in the coming weeks. In the meantime, there is strong scientific consensus that we should take our vaccinations and boosters to protect ourselves against any existing and future variants of COVID-19.
8. We expect to see more Omicron cases being reported globally in the weeks to come, and we must expect to detect more cases at our borders and, in time to come, also within our community. MOH will continue to coordinate with health authorities globally to study and understand the Omicron variant, so as to develop the best possible response. We seek everyone’s cooperation to exercise social responsibility and adhere to the Safe Management Measures (SMMs). If you are offered a vaccination or booster dose, please also come forward and get vaccinated.
MINISTRY OF HEALTH
5 DECEMBER 2021