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Omicron COVID-19 cases spreading at alarming rate in South Africa

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to South Africa where COVID is spreading fast - at a rate not seen since the beginning of the pandemic. Scientists say the surge is due to the omicron variant, which was first identified there and in Botswana in November. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Cape Town. Eyder, thanks for being with us.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: How huge a rise are we talking about?

PERALTA: I mean, if you look at that curve, it shows an almost vertical spike in cases. And to give you some numbers, on November 16, the seven-day moving average of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases was 332. And now that number is more than 4,800. And scientists here are saying that that is unprecedented. It's a much faster acceleration that we've seen in the previous three waves. And this is happening across the country at the same time - in every province, in every major city. And most of these cases are the omicron variant.

SIMON: And at the same time, what are scientists learning from this wave and all the cases?

PERALTA: Yeah, I spoke to Dr. Juliet Pulliam, who directs a modeling center here at Stellenbosch University. And she and her team were one of the first to say that this new variant seemed highly infectious. And in a new preprint paper that they published yesterday, they found that it has a remarkable ability to get past the antibodies that people form when they have COVID.

So South African scientists throughout this whole pandemic have been very realistic from the start. They said this would be long. And very early, they said that herd immunity was just a mirage. The vaccination program, however, was just getting up to speed right now. And many people have already had COVID here in South Africa. So I think everyone was hoping that maybe this summer - we're headed into summer here - would be the beginning of the end of COVID. And I think a lot of people thought that they had this figured out. I asked Dr. Pulliam if this will ever actually end, and here's what she told me.

JULIET PULLIAM: I have no idea. I wish I knew. After the delta wave, I was very relaxed (laughter) and I sort of thought we had a while. Like, I wasn't sure there wasn't going to be a fourth wave, but I didn't think it would be this fast. And it's just come out of nowhere and hit us.

PERALTA: Hit us hard, she says. And this is still uncharted territory, and so her advice is simple. Until we know more about the omicron variant, you should be as careful as you can.

SIMON: Based on the cases we've been able to see so far, do we know whether this variant differs from some of the others in terms of who it affects?

PERALTA: I mean, one of the concerning early pieces of data that we're seeing is that people under 40 are getting infected at higher rates. And health authorities have also found that in Gauteng province, kids below the age of 2 are being hospitalized at a much higher level than in previous waves. But they don't know why. Does it mean that kids are more susceptible to this virus? Or are doctors admitting healthy kids because there's enough beds? We just don't know the answers to those questions yet.

SIMON: Eyder, how are South Africans bearing up?

PERALTA: You know, the country and the people as a whole have been really good at handling this pandemic. They've been a model, really. People wear masks, and the government has put in place some of the most Draconian lockdowns in the world. But this is also a country that has been the hardest hit in sub-Saharan Africa. And this was supposed to be the first normal summer in two years here. And I think at this point, as this wave accelerates, people are thinking the government will impose new lockdowns. And I think everyone is sort of depressed. And it seems certain that everything will be anything but normal, right? And South Africans I've talked to in my regular life, they're just - they're sick of this. And some don't know if they'll survive this new wave economically.

SIMON: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Cape Town, thanks so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.