Fact Check: Did South African Epidemiologist Accurately Predict Nation's COVID Surge?

A former COVID advisor to the South African government—dubbed "Fauci of South Africa" by some U.S. media outlets—appeared to have made an eerily accurate prediction of the start of the fourth wave of the pandemic. That is according to a screenshot of an article published last summer now being shared on social media.

The Claim

A Bloomberg article published on August 17 reported that South Africa "expects a fourth wave of coronavirus infections to start on Dec. 2 and to last about 75 days," according to infectious diseases epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim. The story has recently resurfaced on social media amid the arrival of the Omicron variant.

The article's re-emergence has led to claims that South Africa predicted the fourth wave three months earlier. Abdool Karim's assessment was being shared both as a screengrab of the Bloomberg article and as standalone citations or references to the epidemiologist. In some posts they were accompanied by conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks directed at the expert.

"Well Karim predicted it in August #ScamDemic #Covidmmunism," one Twitter user wrote, replying to the tweet seen below.

"The 4th wave launch button has been pressed.. In fact on 17 Nov Watch positivity and cases climb over the next week until 2 Dec.. The day oracle Karim predicted its landing months ago..," said another tweet, which gathered more than 150 interactions.

Others used the expert's speculation about the possibility of a future new variant to spread baseless narratives that Omicron was a part of a clandestine "agenda," or that "the whole thing is planned and here is the proof."

The Facts

The article citing the South African expert was indeed published by Bloomberg in August. It reported his forecast that South Africa's fourth wave of COVID infections would begin on December 2.

Per the Bloomberg story, South Africa "is assuming the wave will follow a similar pattern to that of the third wave and that there will be a new variant by then," according to Abdool Karim at a Government Technical Advisory Centre conference.

While on the surface the accuracy with which the expert pinpointed the beginning of the latest wave of the pandemic seems striking, his comments prior and following the article's publication provide additional context.

For example, in an interview with eNews Channel Africa, which aired August 18—the day after the Bloomberg story was published, Abdool Karim explained that he was simply providing an estimate "when things are likely to happen."

The epidemiologist went on to explain that the extrapolation is based on the trajectory of previous waves, with an average interwave interval of around 94-99 observed previously.

"If that remains the case, then we can expect our fourth wave to occur roughly in the first half of December, or, say, in the first three weeks. I used December 2 as a marker to indicate it was early December. I don't know the exact date," he stated.

He then spoke about the potential for a new variant to emerge, which helps clarify the second aspect of the prediction that social media users found suspicious.

"We don't know what the fourth wave is going to look like because it is essentially going to have to be driven by a new variant, and we don't know what the new variant is, what it looks like and how it will spread," Abdool Karim said.

"Based on the history of the [pandemic's] trajectory we have seen in this country, I was just saying that this is a likely scenario," he concluded.

Additionally to these comments, Abdool Karim in a later interview posited that—based on the previously seen three-month intervals—the new wave was likely set to occur between November and January, noting that its severity would be contingent on whether a new variant were to emerge, as well as on the level of vaccine uptake in South Africa.

"It's quite reasonable to expect that we have a fourth wave by the end of December," he said, speaking to Algoa FM on October 21.

Contrary to suggestions that Abdool Karim's prediction was somehow an outlier, concerns about a potential new wave of the pandemic have been voiced by many health officials and experts, with some expecting it to hit around winter.

There is however no evidence to support conspiracy theories purporting that either the epidemiologist or the South African government had prior knowledge of the new outbreak, or of the strain that would cause it.

Newsweek has reached out to Abdool Karim for comment on his earlier prediction.

The Ruling

Fact Check - Mostly True

Mostly True.

The screengrab of a Bloomberg article citing Abdool Karim's prediction that the fourth wave of the COVID pandemic would begin December 2 is genuine. His assessment, which relates specifically to South Africa rather than the wider world, was based on the previously observed cycles of the pandemic. The December 2 date was fairly accurate but by his own admission picked arbitrarily as a "marker," rather than for any specific reason. Claims that he knew in advance of the Omicron variant are misleading; the expert merely speculated that, were a new highly contagious variant to arise, it could lead to a more severe wave of infections.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK

Anthony Fauci and Salim Abdool Karim
Epidemiologist and Director of Centre for the Aids Programme of Research (CAPRISA), Professor Salim Abdool Karim (right) seen talking to Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, at an international conference in Durban on July 19, 2016. RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images