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Even as omicron cases rise, South African experts find good news

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

South Africa is in the grips of its fourth COVID wave right now, and it's being driven by the spread of omicron, the most infectious COVID variant to hit the country so far. But even as the number of cases rises, there is also some good news to report. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Cape Town, South Africa, and he joins us now to tell us more. Eyder, welcome.

FLORIDO: Hey, Adrian.

FLORIDO: First, bring us up to date, Eyder, if you would. What is the latest on the pandemic in South Africa?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I mean, just to give you a visual, COVID testing sites that were totally empty a few weeks ago, they're completely mobbed. Cases are rising much faster than they did during the previous three waves. So scientists say that the thing that is pretty clear is that this variant is super infectious. Here in South Africa, it is already proving more contagious than the delta variant.

FLORIDO: That sounds concerning, but we mentioned that there is some good news, which we always love to hear. What can you tell us about the good news?

PERALTA: Yeah. So the health minister here, Dr. Joe Phaahla, says that while they are seeing this huge number of infections they now believe that the omicron variant is not something completely different. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE PHAAHLA: There is really no need for alarm. We expect this variant to behave the same way as the previous variants.

PERALTA: And that statement is coming from data that he's getting from hospitals in Gauteng province, which is the epicenter of this new wave. Hospitalizations are going up, but most of the cases are mild. Most people are spending just a day or two in the hospital. In fact, one super-positive data point is that in one of the busiest hospitals, 79% of patients in the COVID ward were incidental. And that means that they came to the hospital for one thing, and they just happened to test positive for COVID during routine screening.

FLORIDO: OK, so milder illness perhaps. And vaccines, from what the experts are saying there in South Africa, do we know whether the current crop of COVID vaccines work against this variant?

PERALTA: South African scientists were the first ones to grow this virus in the lab. And what they found is that this variant was able to find its way past some of the antibodies created by two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. And that sounds bad, but one of the lead scientists on this study, Alex Siegel, says that it also means that some antibodies will still fight this thing. Let's listen to a bit of what he said.

ALEX SIEGEL: While it's changed a lot on its genome, it has not essentially changed how it behaves. This, to me, was actually better than I expected.

PERALTA: South Africa is also running a huge long-term vaccine study on health workers, and what they are seeing is that a lot of health workers are getting re-infected but they are recovering quickly.

FLORIDO: And in general, Eyder, what sort of pandemic restrictions are there right now in South Africa? Are we seeing lockdowns, other things?

PERALTA: No. There's not many restrictions, and the government is weighing them. But many scientists here believe that the country is actually pretty well positioned to deal with this wave because many South Africans have already had COVID, and about a quarter of the population is vaccinated. And when this thing was first discovered here, there was a palpable sense of dread. But what I've seen in the past week is that South Africans, they just went on autopilot. Masks came back on, hugs stopped. People started meeting outside. And vaccinations picked up. So it just feels like people took a deep breath and began to do what we all know works.

FLORIDO: That was NPR's Eyder Peralta in Cape Town, South Africa. Eyder, thanks for joining us.

PERALTA: Thank you, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.