Leading private healthcare company Discovery has shared exclusively with The Citizen insights about the Omicron variant’s reinfection rates – including why it is vital to vaccinate children.
By now everyone and their pets know what Omicron is unless you’ve been living under a rock since last month.
Discovery’s Covid Task team head and chief commercial officer Dr Ron Whelan spoke to The Citizen on Friday.
Omicron reinfection insights
What we know so far
Omicron is highly transmissible; it’s at the same rate as the Delta variant, if not faster.
“The Delta variant could infect up to six people, Omicron is the same if not more,” said Whelan.
He said it’s too early to tell if it results in more severe disease or death than the Alpha, Beta or Delta variants.
“We are cautiously optimistic because our hospitals are reporting lower admission rates and less sickly patients. There’s a small uptick in Tshwane and the greater Johannesburg area, other provinces remain flat,” he said on Friday.
Concerns of reinfection
“We are seeing reinfection levels as a result of Omicron.”
If you were infected with Covid-19 before Omicron, you had a roughly 77% reduction of further infection risk, (otherwise known as natural immunity as a result of post-infection), but with Omicron it’s 48%.
These figures are for the unvaccinated population.
Whelan said having the vaccine increases ‘natural immunity.’ Discovery data shows immunity from the previous infection with other variants lasted about three months.
Scientific data show this immunity lasted about 6 months, but the emergence of Omicron has changed the game.
“The antibodies from previous variant infections don’t protect against Omicron,” said Whelan.
Positivity rates of Omicron cases
Between 30-36% of people below the age of 40 have high test positivity rates.
Discovery estimates the increased positivity rate is because younger people are more sociable and have wider social circles than the older population groups.
But for people over the age of 50, however, there is a positivity rate of 10-20%. This shows Omicron is disproportionately affecting the younger population groups.
Does Omicron have milder symptoms than previous variants?
Whelan said it is dangerous to assume Omicron has milder symptoms due to two reasons:
1) Its infections are prevalent in the younger population groups, and Covid-19 appears as a milder disease in these groups.
2) Omicron is creating fewer diseases.
Discovery is currently studying vaccine effectiveness against the Omicron variant. But it is clear the majority of admissions are unvaccinated citizens.
“What we are seeing, is 80% of admissions among younger populations are unvaccinated and 60% of the admissions in the older populations are unvaccinated,” said Whelan.
Vital to vaccinate children
“It’s critically important to get children between the ages of 5-11 vaccinated”, said Whelan.
“They get severe Covid-19 and transmit it, so we find that we need to inoculate children much sooner than anticipated”.
The Covid-19 vaccine is currently not part of the government Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) regime.
So far, there have been more than 4 million children aged between 5 and 11 vaccinated in the US. The dose for children is 10 micrograms, which is a third of the normal dose.
“In South Africa, we are still waiting for approval. The initial data suggested a higher hospital admission risk among children – but that is trending downward”.
According to Discovery data, only about 13% of teenagers are vaccinated.
Ministerial advisory committees discussions
But prioritising inoculating children against Covid-19 is not high on the ministerial advisory committee discussions on Covid-19.
The government’s top priority now is who should get the booster doses.
“We’ve opened up booster doses for over 50’s, the immunocompromised and health care workers,” said Whelan.
Next on the agenda is to administer second doses for teachers and frontline public sector emergency workers. Last year this group received the J&J single dose.
The third discussion underway is to boost teenagers. There are discussions around a two-dose regime for teens.
Vaccines for children in the 5-11 age group is fourth on the agenda.