The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that two novel Omicron sub-variants are causing a spike in reported COVID cases in South Africa, emphasizing the significance of testing to monitor viral changes and dissemination.
The substantially mutated and highly transmissible Omicron version of COVID-19, which was discovered in southern Africa in November of last year and quickly spread internationally, is currently the prevalent variety, accounting for nearly all new cases.
Omicron has long been known to contain multiple sub-variants, the most prevalent of which is BA 2.
However, the South African scientists who discovered Omicron are now pointing to two other Omicron sub-variants, BA 4 and BA 5, as the cause of a “increase in cases” in the nation, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The UN health agency stated in its most recent epidemiological study that the sub-lineages “had acquired a few more mutations that may alter their features.”
Tedros stated on Wednesday that it is “too early to tell if these new sub-variants can induce more severe illness than existing Omicron sub-variants.”
“Early findings show immunisation remains protective against severe sickness and mortality,” he added.
COVID-19 has affected South Africa harder than any other country on the continent, with approximately 3.8 million laboratory-confirmed infections and more than 100,000 fatalities.
The country, where fewer than 45 percent of individuals have had two COVID vaccination injections, has seen a significant reduction in the virus, allowing it to spend two full days without reporting any COVID deaths – for the first time in over two years – in March.
The country dropped all COVID restrictions in early April, but cases have subsequently soared back up, increasing by nearly 50% in the preceding week, according to WHO statistics.
“The best strategy to safeguard individuals remains immunisation, in addition to established and tested public health and social measures,” Tedros said on Wednesday.
Since the start of the epidemic, the WHO has officially reported more than 6.2 million COVID deaths globally, but the exact toll is thought to be much higher.
The number of newly reported cases and fatalities is rapidly dropping globally, reaching its lowest level since March 2020.
However, Tedros cautioned that “these trends, while good, do not tell the entire story,” noting that reported cases were increasing in the Americas and Africa, “led by Omicron sub-variants.”
The WHO has also warned that the declining worldwide numbers might be due to major reductions in viral testing.
Tedros emphasised that the data from South Africa demonstrated that “testing and sequencing remain very crucial.”
“The BA 4 and BA 5 sub-variants were detected because South Africa continues to do the critical genetic sequencing that many other nations have abandoned,” Tedros explained.
“We’re virtually ignorant to how the virus is changing in many areas,” he cautioned.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen next.”