Egypt’s health ministry has said that Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in the country, helping to push new daily cases past the 1,000 mark for the first time since May.
Omicron has spread quickly and is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in Egypt, acting Health Minister Khaled Abdel Ghaffar said at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
The official tally of daily infections broke into four figures on Friday and continues to climb, nearly a month after the first Omicron cases were detected in the country.
Egypt was among 22 countries added to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s level four watch list on Tuesday, indicating a “very high” coronavirus risk.
The highly contagious Omicron variant, which has been shown to evade immunity and has an unusually large number of mutations, was first identified in South Africa and has since been detected in more than 145 nations worldwide.
Egypt was already in the midst of a fourth wave when the first Omicron cases were detected on December 18. The country experienced three major Covid-19 waves in June 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, reaching a peak of more than 1,700 daily cases in the first wave.
On Tuesday, the ministry reported 1,303 new infections and 26 deaths. More than 400,000 cases and more than 22,000 deaths have been recorded in Egypt since the pandemic began.
The health ministry has said that actual cases may be 10 times higher than official numbers due to limited testing and the exclusion of private lab results. But daily infections give a relative sense of the situation.
Milder symptoms but concerns remain
Dr Begad Mostafa, a pulmonologist working in Covid-19 isolation hospitals in Cairo, said the situation was “like a year ago” when Egypt had not yet started its vaccination programme.
“The spreading is more and the numbers are high, but the symptoms are milder, thank God,” he told The National.
Studies around the world have found that Omicron usually causes milder symptoms similar to the common cold. However, Dr Mostafa said he has seen severe cases among both the unvaccinated and vaccinated people in Egypt.
“When a patient’s oxygen level is below 90 per cent, the patient needs oxygen support. In that case, it doesn’t matter if it’s Omicron or Delta. The treatment is the same,” he said.
As in the rest of the world, the spike in infections coincided with the end of the December holiday period, when travel and gatherings increased.
Cairo resident Tatiana Foda, 46, says a Christmas dinner infected all six family members who attended despite them being vaccinated.
“Every family has at least one person they know who has it or within the family. It’s rampant,” she said.
About a quarter of Egypt’s population of more than 100 million people has been fully vaccinated, Our World in Data shows, well below the World Health Organisation’s target of vaccinating 40 per cent of each country's population by the end of last year.
In recent months the government has stepped up its vaccination campaign and introduced some restrictive measures including barring unvaccinated students from universities.
In December, the Cabinet approved booster shots, prioritising the elderly and those with medical conditions.
Egypt has received a total of 132 million doses of coronavirus vaccines so far and has a current stock of about 70 million doses, Mr Abdel Ghaffar said during the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Deliveries this month include one million AstraZeneca doses through the Covax initiative, three million Pfizer doses provided by the US and one million AstraZeneca doses from Argentina.
China's ambassador to Egypt said this week his country will send 10 million doses of Sinovac vaccine “in the coming period”.
Egyptian state-owned pharmaceuticals company Vacsera, which is producing China’s Sinovac locally, signed a co-operation agreement that will set up a cooling facility to store up to 150 million vaccine doses.