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Omicron is subsiding in South Africa


The omicron variant was first detected by scientists in Botswana in South Africa. They alerted the world, and they began collecting data. Now, as South Africa's omicron wave recedes, we wanted to know what the country has learned. So we're joined now by Dr. Glenda Gray. She is the president of the South African Medical Research Council. Dr. Gray, thank you for joining us.

GLENDA GRAY: Thank you very much.

PERALTA: So let's begin with the situation right now in South Africa. Are you satisfied that this wave of the pandemic is now past its peak?

GRAY: Yes, we've been watching this - the number of cases. And we've been monitoring and doing surveillance. And we are happy that we've passed our peak of our fourth wave and that we also are seeing much less hospitalizations and a lot less deaths than we've seen in the past.

PERALTA: So from the beginning, South Africa has taken a very cautious approach to this pandemic. But during this wave, there were no new lockdown measures. In fact, South Africa did just the opposite. They stopped contact tracing. The government lifted a nighttime curfew that has been in place since I can remember. Now that we have some hindsight, was that the right thing to do?

GRAY: I think it was. I think when we first heard about the omicron variant, we watched very carefully. So we did a lot of surveillance in hospitals. And we look at our death registers, and we look at our cases. We were excited when we saw that, in fact, people weren't going to hospital and that the cases were very mild in comparison to our experience with delta. So you could see that this virus was behaving in a much different way.

PERALTA: Do you have a good understanding as to why?

GRAY: Well, I think we were, first of all, very careful to say that we weren't sure whether this was a less virulent virus or whether this hybrid immunity that we have in South Africa, where we have lots of people - up to 70 to 80% of people in our country had been exposed to either the delta or the beta or the original virus in our country. So we have high levels of preexisting immunity, and we have a moderate vaccine coverage. And so we weren't sure whether there was a combination of preexisting immunity or whether the little bit of vaccination we had done was helping us control this surge much better than before. We would have to see how people in other countries that have less preexisting immunity and less vaccination rates - to see how this virus fares there.

PERALTA: In South Africa, are you viewing this moment as a hopeful sign for future waves?

GRAY: So we're hoping that we're seeing the end - that the viruses will get milder and milder. But also, we've never been very sure. Every time we've predicted something with SARS-CoV-2, we've been wrong. And so although we are hopeful, we remain vigilant that this may just be a variant. And another variant that comes along next time may be worse and more severe.

PERALTA: Dr. Gray, does this mild wave in South Africa tell us that, you know, we should start treating this or seeing this as the flu? Or is it too soon to think that?

GRAY: I think we can be cautiously optimistic. We have to keep on watching to see what emerges. We wish and are hopeful that this may be the first move towards the SARS-CoV-2 becoming an endemic virus like the flu and hope omicron is the beginning of the evolution of the virus that enables us to coexist in a way that's not devastating to our health and to our economies.

PERALTA: I wonder if you could leave Americans with some advice. What would you tell them, you know, as this country faces a flood of new cases and disruptions?

GRAY: So we've seen that vaccines do work. And vaccines do protect against hospital admissions. We also showed that the people who were in hospital were more likely to be unvaccinated than vaccinated. And we saw a large number of young people in our hospital because we don't have good coverage of vaccine in children over 12 and in young adults. And so the first thing I would tell the American population is get vaccinated. The second thing that we do very well in South Africa is that we mask in public. When you go out on the street, masking is mandatory. And we also emphasize a lot of ventilation and not to spend a lot of time indoors with many people. It's about physical distance, ventilation, wearing masks in public and being vaccinated and to be vigilant and to continue to do surveillance in your country to make sure that you can pick up any variant that is emerging in your country.

PERALTA: So do what we know works.

GRAY: Do what you know works. Trust the scientists. Trust the data. And there are a lot of Americans that haven't been vaccinated. I know there's a lot of resistance to mask wearing. But in South Africa, we've managed to turn the tide by using these public health interventions.

PERALTA: Dr. Glenda Gray - she is the president of the South African Medical Research Council - thank you so much for joining us.

GRAY: Thank you very much. And good luck. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.