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What has South Africa learned about the Omicron variant?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Most of what we know about the omicron variant of COVID-19 comes from South Africans who first detected it. Yesterday on this program, Dr. Anthony Fauci summarized what we've learned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: It looks like the hospitalization rate is less, but that could be because it is seemingly right now going through younger people more so than older people. But all reports that we've heard anecdotally is that it does look like it might be a bit milder, but you have to wait until the outbreak matures a bit before you can actually make any definitive statement.

INSKEEP: Let's get a little more information directly from South Africa. Dr. Arifa Parker is on the line. She's an internal medicine and infectious diseases specialist at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. Welcome to the program.

ARIFA PARKER: Thank you. Good morning to you and your listeners.

INSKEEP: Thank you so much. Dr. Fauci touched on a vital question there - whether the infections from the new variant are milder overall than we would expect from other variants. Do you think, based on your knowledge, that that is true?

PARKER: So obviously, it's still the early days. But what we are seeing - and this is largely anecdotal and based on very early evidence - is that a lot of the cases are milder. But as he's mentioned, the - most of the cases are actually, you know, a younger population. So what we are seeing is that we have - it's probably far more now over the weekend. So we've got more than 90,000 cases in South Africa and probably more than 7,000 cases where I work in Cape Town. And our hospitals are actually not at this point overrun with COVID.

INSKEEP: Oh, good.

PARKER: So in incarnating, there's been this slight increase in hospitalizations, but when analyzed, it was - these hospitalizations were not correlating with severe disease.

INSKEEP: I'd like to ask also, if I might - if I might interrupt, I'd like to ask also about early reports on this suggesting that this variant was, compared to other variants, incredibly, terrifyingly contagious. Has that proven to be true?

PARKER: That is what we are seeing. So it seems to have a very high transmission rate. And our numbers were doubling very rapidly. So I - as the rest of the world only heard about this variant just over a week ago, and we had a few hundred cases. And we are at 90,000 cases a week later. And, you know, since our scientists have discovered it, you know, the virus, this variant of the virus has been picked up in many, many other countries. So as you can imagine, South Africans are quite upset about a travel ban that was placed on our country, you know, despite this omicron variant being found in many other countries throughout the globe.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note it is in multiple states in the United States now in spite of any travel ban or any other efforts. One other thing I want to drill down on, and that's the effectiveness of vaccines. Sad to say South Africa is in a position to have a kind of uncontrolled experiment but with a control group. You've got a vaccinated population. You also have a very large unvaccinated population. As best you can tell in these early days, are the vaccines holding up against this variant?

PARKER: So, I mean, once again, it's very early days, but we are really super cautiously optimistic that vaccines are doing the job. So what I'm seeing anecdotally is that people who are vaccinated are not being admitted to our hospitals. So in Cape Town, where I work, roughly 50% of our population is vaccinated. And at this point in time, at my hospital, which is the second-biggest hospital in South Africa, we don't have any COVID cases in ICU or in the high care (ph) at present.

INSKEEP: One final thing - U.S. officials in the response to this variant have essentially said, let's keep doing what we're doing, only a little more and better - plenty of vaccines, plenty of boosters, plenty of masks, plenty of distancing. Is there any additional advice you'd give?

PARKER: Yes. No, no, not much. Not much more than that. So what we're going to do for this variant is exactly the same as what we've done for all the other variants. So, you know, prepare in terms of hospitalizations for the worst as we've done before. Vaccinate. Public health measures - use your mask, avoid indoor gatherings. Outdoor is fine. And we find a way to live with this virus.

INSKEEP: Dr. Arifa Parker of Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

PARKER: Thank you. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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