The newly-discovered Omicron variant is likely to fuel a surge in South Africa’s coronavirus cases that could see daily infections treble this week, a top epidemiologist warned Monday.
Health monitors reported over 2,800 new infections on Sunday, up from a daily average of 500 in the previous week and 275 the week before.
“We can expect that higher transmissibility is likely and so we are going to get more cases quickly," Dr Salim Abdool Karim said at an online health ministry press briefing.
“I am expecting we will top over 10,000 cases by the end of the week per day (and) see pressure on hospitals within the next two, three weeks."
South African scientists announced the new highly-mutated variant on Thursday, blaming it for a sudden rise in infections in Africa’s worst-hit nation.
Hospital admissions more than doubled over the past month in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province and the epicentre of the new outbreak, according to official figures.
The province has entered a fourth infection wave that is expected to spread to the rest of the country by the end of the year, health officials said.
South Africa has recorded 2.9 million cases and 89,797 deaths, although these figures, proportionate to its population, are still significantly lower than other heavily affected countries, especially in Europe.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said there was “absolutely no need to panic."
“We have been here before," he said, referring to the Beta variant identified in South Africa last December.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated Omicron a variant of concern and is still assessing its virulence, although experts agree it is likely to be highly infectious.
There is also fear the variant could be more resistant to certain antibodies, although its ability to evade vaccines is still being assessed.
The severity of the disease it causes has not yet been determined, although symptoms observed so far in South Africa have been relatively mild.
“Even if Omicron is not clinically worse, and certainly the anecdotes don’t raise any red flags just yet… we are going to see (rising cases) in all likelihood because of the rapidity of transmission," Karim said.
Dozens of countries have implemented travel bans on South Africa and its neighbours in a bid to keep Omicron out, although the variant has now been detected in at least 11 other countries.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on world governments to “urgently" and “immediately" reopen their borders to the region.
He accused rich countries of breaching pledges to support tourism in poorer nations they made at a G20 meeting last month and denounced vaccine inequality.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is further damage the economies of the affected countries," Ramaphosa said.
He pushed for vaccines as South Africa’s “most powerful tool" against the new variant and urged citizens to get jabbed.
The government is struggling with vaccine hesitancy and is mulling over measures to boost uptake, including making shots mandatory for certain venues and events.