South Africa Reports New COVID Cases Have Doubled, Braces for Rapid Rise Amid Omicron

South African authorities reported that new COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in a day, rising from 4,373 on Tuesday to 8,561 Wednesday, according to official statistics. The accelerated infection rates come as the country braces for a rapid rise in infections amid the emergence of the Omicron variant, the Associated Press reported.

"There is a possibility that really we're going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds," said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a regional virologist for the World Health Organization (WHO). "There is a possibility that we are going to see a vast increase in [the] number of cases being identified in South Africa."

Many questions still remain regarding the potential impact of Omicron. The WHO classified it as a variant of concern Friday, but said in an update Sunday that it is "not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta."

The WHO update noted that the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in areas of South Africa impacted by Omicron has risen, but epidemiologic studies were being conducted to determine whether the variant or other factors were to blame for the growth.

Experts say that it is very possible that Omicron is causing South Africa's virus surge, the AP reported. While only full genetic sequencing can confirm whether someone is infected with the variant, standard PCR tests can detect a marker that someone may have the strain.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

South Africa COVID Rise
South African authorities reported that new COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in a day, rising from 4,373 on Tuesday to 8,561 Wednesday, according to official statistics. Above, a woman is tested for COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 1, 2021. Shiraaz Mohamed/AP Photo

South Africa had seen a period of low transmission in early November with a 7-day average of about 200 new cases per day, but in the middle of November new cases began to rapidly increase. The new cases reported Wednesday represent a 16.5 percent positivity rate of cases tested, up from a 1 percent rate early in November.

South Africa's previous surge, driven by the Delta variant in June and July, saw daily new cases reach a peak of more than 20,000. With a population of 60 million people, South Africa has recorded more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases, including nearly 90,000 deaths.

Labs in South Africa and Botswana are urgently doing genomic sequencing to study Omicron cases in order to see if it is significantly more transmissible, causes more serious cases of COVID-19 or if it evades protection from vaccinations, Gumede-Moeletsi said.

"The current data that we're having is still very limited. So there are so many additional characteristics of this virus that the researchers are busy studying, of which transmissibility is one of them. Severity is also another," she said, adding that researchers also need to find out if current vaccines will still be effective against it.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are rising in South Africa, but not at the dramatic rate of the new cases.

The Omicron variant has been detected in five of South Africa's nine provinces and accounted for 74 percent of the virus genomes sequenced in November, the country's National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced Wednesday.

The earliest detection of the variant in South Africa may have been on November 8 in Gauteng province, according to data released by the institute. It said until the end of October, the delta variant accounted for most genomes sequenced in the country, but in November the Omicron variant overtook it.

Omicron Rise in South Africa
Scientists say it could be weeks before they better understand how dangerous the Omicron variant is. Above, a woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 1, 2021. Shiraaz Mohamed/AP Photo