South Africa prepares hospitals as Anthony Fauci downplays Omicron dangers

President Cyril Ramaphosa urges people to get vaccinated

Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron

Early data from the centre of the Omicron coronavirus variant outbreak in South Africa does not appear to show a significant surge in hospital admissions, US President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser said on Sunday night.

“Thus far, it doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Dr Anthony Fauci said of the new breakout variant, although experts have said it will take more time to get the full picture.

However, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that the country was preparing hospitals for more admissions as Omicron appeared to account for new infections in most provinces.

"We will soon be convening a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council to review the state of the pandemic. This will enable us to take whatever further measures are needed to keep people safe and healthy," he said, urging people to get vaccinated.

"We are keeping a close eye on the rates of infection and hospitalisation," Mr Ramaphosa said.

The World Health Organisation has sounded the alarm over the Omicron variant that was first detected in southern Africa in recent weeks but may have been circulating in Europe and elsewhere for some time.

A lot remains unknown about Omicron, which has more than twice the number of mutations as the Delta variant, with the bulk found in the spike – the crown-like protein on the surface of the virus that vaccines train our bodies to attack.

The main concern is around these mutations that scientists worry will help it evade the protection offered by vaccinations or past infections by other variants. President of vaccine manufacturer Moderna, Stephen Hoge, has said there is a “real risk” that existing vaccines will be less effective against Omicron.

Several drug companies, including Moderna, have begun to tweak their vaccines in the hope it will prevent the worst impacts of this new breakout version but the introduction of these new shots will take months.

The appearance of such a highly mutated virus nearly two years into the pandemic caught the scientific community by surprise, as many had hypothesised that the ultra-contagious Delta variant might mark the last major wave, peaking and then eventually burning out, much like the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The US has detected Omicron in about a third of its states but even as countries around the world tighten rules around gatherings and travel, Dr Fauci said the Biden administration is re-evaluating its own ban on arrivals from southern African countries as more information becomes available.

Many of the cases in the US, Dr Fauci said, were among fully vaccinated individuals but that they exhibited only mild symptoms.

In contrast to the US, tougher border measures in Japan have boosted voter support for the country’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily said on Monday.

Japan took some of the world's strictest steps on November 29 by closing its borders to new foreign entrants for about a month. A day later, it discovered its first Omicron infection in a Namibian diplomat who had arrived on November 28.

Support for Mr Kishida's government has risen from 56 per cent a month ago to 62 per cent today, the Yomiuri poll showed. More than 89 per cent of respondents expressed a positive view of the new Covid-19 measures.

Singapore said it will begin vaccinating children aged 5-11 soon, as the country with one of the world’s highest inoculation rates moves to cover one of its last remaining demographics.

More Omicron cases were found in New South Wales, Australia, which has been getting back to normal after months of lockdown.

Meanwhile, a new study has shown that non-severe Covid-19 cases during pregnancy had no visible effect on the foetus’s brain.

Foetal MRI scans of 33 pregnant women with mild to moderate Covid-19 infections showed "normal age-appropriate brain development" in all cases, lead researcher Dr Sophia Stoecklein said. "There were no findings indicative of infection of the foetal brain."

Only mothers who did not require hospital admission were included in the study.

"Since the impact of severe infection on brain development in the foetus has not been conclusively determined, active protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection during pregnancy remains important," Dr Stoecklein said.

Additional reporting by agencies

Updated: December 6th 2021, 5:45 PM