Two members of the Bangladesh women’s cricket team, which remains in quarantine since returning from Zimbabwe amid the Omicron scare late last month, were confirmed on Saturday as the country’s first identified cases of the latest coronavirus variant of concern.
Since first being identified by South African doctors in the province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg in mid-November, Omicron has spread quickly around the globe, and was said to be present in at least 57 countries by the WHO as of Thursday – before Bangladesh confirmed its cases.
Africa recorded more than 107 000 cases in the week ending on 5 December, up from around 55 000, according to WHO – up 93% over the previous week. Countries in southern Africa, where the variant is known to have been in circulation since early November, recorded the highest increase with a 140% hike mainly driven by an uptick in South Africa.
Scientists around the world are poring over the early data out of SA in order to gain a grasp of what to expect in the event of a new wave of infections driven by Omicron. At this stage, the weight of evidence indicates although an Omicron wave may well be inevitable, it is likely to be typified by milder cases, with less severe disease than what was witnessed during the Delta wave.
Data which looked at hospitalisations across South Africa between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU occupancy was only 6.3% – which the WHO says is “very low” compared with the same early period of the wave linked to the Delta variant in July.
Out of more than 1200 admissions, 98 were receiving supplemental oxygen and only four were on ventilation. Most of the people admitted to the health facilities were under the age of 40 – this isn’t unusual, as the early part of a wave is often fuelled by the young, who tend to be more outgoing, as well as less vaccinated.
WHO has warned that as the clinical profile of patients changes, the impact of Omicron may change. This would apply even more in countries with a different demographic profile to South Africa, which has a very young population.
But we found some reassuring similarities between the demographic profiles of South Africa and Bangladesh, and even the proportion of the population in each country vaccinated, which makes a deep dive into the early data out of South Africa much more worthwhile.
Similarities between SA and BD
Statistics South Africa, which is a government agency, estimated the population of South Africa was 58.8 million in 2019. In this regard it is dwarfed by Bangladesh, where the population in 2019 was 164.6 million, as per the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. But there the dissimilarities end.
According to the World Population Review, which uses projections of the latest United Nations data, the median age in the two countries is very similar – 27.1 in South Africa (26.9 for males, 27. 3 for females), and 26.7 in Bangladesh (26 for males, 27.3 for females).
The two countries also have very similar population pyramids (see image), showing the distribution of the population through different age groups. Using World Bank data, we find there are similarities in the age structures of the two nations too.
In South Africa, 28.8% of the population is aged between 0-14 years; 65.6% is aged between 15-64; and 5.5% are 65 and over.
In Bangladesh, 26.8% of the population falls in the 0-14 years category; 68% are between 15-64; and 5.2% are 65 and over.
There are striking similarities in the vaccination numbers too. In South Africa, 41% of the adult population has had at least one dose of the vaccine. In Bangladesh, a greater percentage of the population targeted for vaccination (which includes adults plus some other groups such as students) has had at least a single dose – 52%.
South Africa however has done a better job of fully vaccinating its adult population – 36% are double-jabbed. In Bangladesh, 32% of the targeted population have had their two doses of the vaccine.
South Africa’s Fourth Wave
In order to assess the situation in South Africa, we’ll look at data from the country’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the country’s National Health Laboratory Service, hospital groups, and statements of senior healthcare professionals.
The first thing to note is that cases in South Africa are undoubtedly surging. The country confirmed 22,391 new cases on Thursday, 19,018 on Friday, and 17,154 on Saturday, up from about 200 per day a few weeks ago – interestingly, about the level Bangladesh finds itself at present.
The positivity rate hit 29.8% on Thursday, a sharp increase from 1.2% reported during the first week of November.
The new surge has infected 90,000 people in the past month, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said Friday.
“Omicron has driven the resurgence,” Phaahla said, citing studies that say 70% of the new cases nationwide are from omicron.
The R value, signifying the coronavirus reproduction rate - the number of people likely to be infected by one person – for South Africa’s current wave is 2.5, which is very high, and the highest that South Africa has recorded during the pandemic.