Accra — Many virologists were concerned by the Omicron variant because it spreads more quickly than previous strains. Now African scientists hope the variant marks the end of the pandemic and the beginning of an endemic.
As of Friday, January 21, the COVID-19 pandemic had claimed more than 5.5 million people worldwide. The more contagious variants of Omicron and Delta are mainly responsible for the exponential new number of infections.
The Omicron variant first detected and documented in South Africa is becoming the dominant virus behind in many parts of the world, including Africa but a South African study has shown that the deaths haven't increased significantly, unlike other previous variants.
That fourth wave has been receding in South Africa, and life is gradually returning to normal for the first time since the pandemic's start.
"I do wish that I won't even hear the name COVID. That's what we are wishing for," one resident of Cape Town told DW.
Another resident told DW, "It's very nice to see everyone going out and about, relaxing, going outside. We've been locked down in our houses for how long now?! I hope that Omicron is actually the final stage of this virus."
South African virologist Wolfgang Preiser told DW that the behavior of the Omicron gives hope that the pandemic could become endemic. But he added that it could only be achieved when most of the population has a primary immunity from a previous infection or vaccination.
"I still hope we can get around regular booster shots," Preiser said, adding if everyone has basic immunity – possibly with a specific omicron booster.
"If another variant doesn't come as a nasty surprise, then we can keep our immunity up by natural means via regular re-infections with the coronavirus," Preiser said.
'Good news' for Africa?
The mild nature of the Omicron variant is good news for most African countries where infections have been rising, but it also gives scientists hope of possibly an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fred Binka, a Ghanaian epidemiologist, said the South African news on the recession of the Omicron variant was good for the fight against the pandemic.
"This is very good news! Viruses have two major characteristics, they have virulence, and they also have the transmission capabilities," Binka told DW. He further explained that viruses don't usually become virulent and simultaneously take up transmissibility capacities.
"They either mutate and gain strength in the transmissibility or their virulence. So when they [viruses] become very transmissible, you have the lower virulence," Binka said.
Binka sounded upbeat, adding: "It is obvious that the pandemic is coming to an end, the virus has now established itself, and it will be endemic and be here forever." He predicted that COVID-19 will become a typical virus "that we can live with and treat."
WHO urges caution
According to the World Health Organization, the 'mild Omicron variant' doesn't mean the world is out of the danger zone yet.
This week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the pandemic is nowhere near over. "Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading," Tedros told reporters.
"Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities."
Globally, deaths continue to rise. In Africa, there are still concerns about the impact of the pandemic, with vaccinations rates being the lowest in the world. Only 7% of Africa's population has received a COVID jab.
"If you get to a situation where nearly everyone has had it [COVID] or has been vaccinated, you can relax," Preiser said.
Preiser stressed the need for African countries, including South Africa, to keep pushing for the population to get vaccinated.
Epidemiologist Binka emphasized the need to remain vigilant. "Caution is the order of the day," Binka said, adding that not all details about Omicron "has been documented, so let's wait another six months and see what will happen."
African children at higher risk from Covid
The cautious optimism from the African scientists comes after another study published in JAMA Pediatrics led by a University of Pittsburgh infectious diseases epidemiologist that shows children in sub-Saharan Africa hospitalized with COVID-19 are dying at a faster rate than children in the US and Europe.
The study said that children of all ages with comorbidities, including high blood pressure, chronic lung diseases, hematological disorders, and cancer, were more likely to die.
"Although our study looked at data from earlier in the pandemic, the situation hasn't changed much for the children of Africa," said lead author Jean B. Nachega, an associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology and epidemiology at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.
"If anything, it is expected to be worsening with the global emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant."
Nachega called for an urgent scale-up of COVID-19 vaccination and therapeutic interventions among at-risk eligible children and adolescents in Africa.
On Wednesday, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa opened a COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing facility. The NantSA plant located in Brackenfell, Western Cape, will be manufacturing second-generation vaccines.
"Africa should no longer be last in line to access vaccines against pandemics," Ramaphosa said at the facility's opening.