S. African expert downplays threat from Omicron: ‘We won’t have a severe epidemic’

Virologist Barry Schoub, who advises the government, says data so far indicates vaccines protect against severe illness from new COVID variant

Prof. Barry Schoub, a top adviser to South Africa's government on COVID-19 vaccines (YouTube video screenshot)
Prof. Barry Schoub, a top adviser to South Africa's government on COVID-19 vaccines (YouTube video screenshot)

A top adviser to the South African government on the coronavirus pandemic said Friday that while the new Omicron variant of the virus — first documented in his country — was worrying, he did not believe the strain would lead to a major new wave of serious illness.

Virologist Barry Schoub, the head of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, told Israel’s Channel 12 news that based on initial data from cases in South Africa, it seemed the vaccine would still protect most people from severe COVID-19.

“I think what we can be pretty comfortable… that the vaccine will still prevent serious disease,” he said. “That I think we are pretty sure about. How effective it will be in preventing milder disease — that we’ve still got to understand.”

Other scientists have said it is still too early to tell how well the current vaccines protect against the Omicron strain.

Read: What is the new COVID variant in Africa, and why are scientists so concerned?

“It’s unlikely that it’s going to cause more severe disease,” Schoub said. “Certainly what we’ve been seeing up to now… the great majority of the patients have been mild. In fact, there hasn’t been a very substantial increase in hospital admissions so far.”

People with masks at a shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021 (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

While Schoub stressed that it was still “early days” in relation to the variant, he added that he thought the new wave of infections in his country “is going to be a lot less severe. There’s a lot more immunity, more people are vaccinated. We’re not going to have a severe epidemic.”

Schoub’s position was far more mellow than that of some other health experts around the world, who have reacted with alarm to Omicron, which has more mutations to its spike proteins than any previous strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Numerous nations have reacted by severely restricting travel from Africa — Israel among them. Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a dire warning of a potential “emergency situation” in the country, should Omicron prove highly contagious as well as capable of breaking through immunity protection.

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet will also hold an emergency meeting on Saturday evening to discuss possible new restrictions, including in the education system where health officials fear the outbreak could be most prominent.

A Magen David Adom worker takes a swab sample from a woman at a coronavirus rapid testing station in the central city of Lod, October 17, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Bennett, at a press conference, said the country will bar travel from all sub-Saharan African countries for now. He said the government was “preparing for every scenario” concerning the new strain, and recommended Israelis generally avoid travel abroad. But he said there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.

By Friday afternoon health officials said they believed four cases of the new variant had been found in Israel.

The government has instructed the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command to locate all those who arrived from relevant African countries over the past week, and to instruct them to immediately self-isolate. Home Front Command soldiers will also conduct home virus tests, the prime minister said.

But like Schoub, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public services, noted that vaccinated individuals who have contracted the new variant appear to generally have a mild illness only.

Earlier on Friday, at a meeting with Horowitz and experts, Bennett said that the government’s “overriding principle at the moment is to take quick and strong action, now, especially regarding entry to – and exit from – Israel, until the situation becomes clearer.”

“When it does, we will decide what we are doing,” he added.

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