South Africa's ferocious Omicron wave already appears to be 'past the peak,' medical experts say

In South Africa, the Omicron coronavirus variant that roared in like a lion in mid-November appears to be going out like a lamb a month later.

The country reported a record-high 27,000 new COVID-19 cases last Thursday, almost all of them the Omicron strain, but that number dropped to 15,424 on Tuesday, The Associated Press reports. And in Omicron epicenter Gauteng province, "the decrease started earlier and has continued," offering "one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike."

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"The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak," Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told AP. "It was a short wave ... and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths."

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The sharp drop in recorded cases in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province, is "very significant," agreed Dr. Fareed Abdullah, who has been working in the COVID ward of Pretoria's Steve Biko Academic Hospital. "The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we're seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave."

Not everyone agrees. "In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled," Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, tells AP. "But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak." She noted that South Africa is in the middle of its holiday season, which involves a lot of travel and opportunity to spread the virus.

There are other caveats, too.. "Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuation," AP notes, and South Africa, with its average age of 27, is not the U.S. or Europe. "Each setting, each country is different," Nunes told AP. "The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries."

But the virus is the same, so maybe — just maybe — Omicron's reign of terror will be short and less terrible than feared.

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