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COVID-19 data out of South Africa points to substantially fewer deaths compared to past infection spikes

Scientists at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, work on the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus Wednesday Dec. 15, 2021.

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

  • New COVID-19 data from South Africa points to fewer hospitalizations and deaths than past infection surges.
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb shared a series of graphs on Twitter that suggest Omicron’s impact is less severe.
  • But scientists have stressed the likelihood that high population immunity is playing a role. 

New COVID-19 data out of South Africa, which has been ravaged by the Omicron variant in recent weeks, suggests the current surge has resulted in far fewer deaths than previous surges with similar case numbers.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former FDA commissioner, shared a series of graphs to Twitter on Thursday, highlighting the impact of Omicron on South Africa, which was first to sequence the new variant. 

In the Gauteng province of South Africa, an area that was hit particularly hard by Omicron, the number of daily hospitalizations and deaths in the past month has been substantially fewer than previous COVID-19 peaks in the area throughout the pandemic.

—Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) December 23, 2021


The graphs, created by AEI using data from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and Our World in Data, compare the current Omicron surge to three previous peaks in the country in July 2020, January 2021, and July 2021.

ICU admissions in Gauteng are down about 80% on a relative basis, according to Gottlieb,while those who are being hospitalized for the virus are having more acute stays. 

Another graph of case numbers across all of South Africa throughout the pandemic shows drastically fewer deaths attributed to the current Omicron epidemic when compared to three previous peaks in the country.

In the three past surges, daily deaths were closely tied to daily case numbers in the country. But in the last month, deaths have stayed relatively low, despite a substantial uptick in cases.

—Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) December 23, 2021

The real world data appears to align with a recent study out of South Africa that suggests reduced risk of hospitalization and severe disease in Omicron cases compared to people infected with the Delta variant. 

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was conducted by researchers at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, comparing data about Omicron cases from October and November with data about Delta infections from April to November in South Africa.

The authors emphasized that some of their findings are likely due to high immunity among the population.

The country’s COVID-19 cases have been steadily declining in recent days, which has prompted some experts to predict South Africa’s Omicron peak is on the decline. Others, however, have stressed that it’s too early to suggest the peak has passed, because case numbers are not a completely reliable indication of the virus’s trajectory. 

Several US scientists are still preparing for a painful, but swift, next few months battling Omicron. New models suggest the US’s outbreak may peak in January and last no more than three months, Insider’s Aria Bendix reported.

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