Does South Africa’s COVID uptick signal greater threat from omicron? Here’s what we know

While we don't know whether the omicron variant will lead to more severe cases of COVID-19, its ability to spread is becoming clearer. Cases in South Africa are spiking at the fastest rate since the pandemic began, and European officials said their modeling found that omicron would likely be responsible for more than half of their cases this winter. William Brangham looks at the global picture.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While we don't know whether Omicron will lead to more severe cases, its ability to spread is becoming clearer. South Africa's cases are spiking

    Tonight, we are hearing that New York state has now identified five more cases of the Omicron variant. South Africa's cases are spiking at the fastest rate since the pandemic began. And European officials said their modeling found that Omicron would likely be responsible for more than half of all cases there this winter.

    William Brangham looks at the global picture.

  • William Brangham:

    The World Health Organization has argued that Omicron poses a high risk globally because of possibility that this strain could transmit more easily.

    Dr. Margaret Harris is a public health doctor and spokesperson for the WHO. And she joins me from Geneva.

    Dr. Harris, good to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    There are still so many unanswered questions about Omicron, about its contagiousness, about its virulence, about its — what it does vis-a-vis our vaccines. What was it that you all saw initially that made you want to ring the alarm bell?

  • Dr. Margaret Harris, World Health Organization:

    So, the big thing and the thing that made our experts in the Viral Evolution Group really sit up and take notice was the large number of mutations.

    So there are more mutations in this one than any of the others that we have seen, up to 50. And a lot of them, up to 32, are in the spike region. And the spike, as I'm sure you're all aware now, is the thing that the virus uses to enter our cells and cause problems.

    It's also the thing that's been targeted by our vaccines. And some of those mutations — so, again, there were just too many things that didn't look so good. And the decision was, we need to tell the world about this now, even though there are many, many unanswered questions right now.

  • William Brangham:

    There are these reports out of South Africa of rising hospitalizations, quite rapid rise in areas where we know Omicron is present.

    Have you seen those reports? And do those indicate to you, as they do to some, that that is an early indicator of trouble?

  • Dr. Margaret Harris:

    Yes, indeed.

    And this was part of the epidemiology that we looked at as well. And South Africa had a very flat curve until recently, and then suddenly numbers went right up very, very quickly. We don't know that that's all Omicron. But that's again another signal that makes us concerned. And when you see a big rise in numbers, we know that at least 10 percent of people who are infected are likely to end up in hospital, particularly in a population that isn't heavily — highly vaccinated.

    So if you have got a population that's not very vaccinated — and that's the case in South Africa — you will see at least 10 percent of people end up in hospital.

    So, again, we don't know if it is just simply the pattern we have always seen, and this is just a result of pressure of numbers, or are — is Omicron having some effect there?

  • William Brangham:

    Even though that information is still yet to come in, the U.S., many European nations have enacted travel bans from certain Southern African countries.

    I know the WHO has come out strongly against those moves. Help us understand why. Why do you think that's a bad idea?

  • Dr. Margaret Harris:

    Well, we don't like blanket bans, first of all, because they don't really work.

    If you're really trying to sort of hermetically sealed your borders, usually, you have done it too late, that whatever you're trying to stop has already got in there. Secondly, a ban that then stops all flights means not only do you stop people, but you stop transport of goods.

    And a lot of those goods are critical for continuance of the various societies and also continuance on with the response. So, colleagues in South Africa have said they're short of reagents to do the testing. Now, we, the world, want them to do all the testing. We are relying on their brilliant science, and yet we're doing things that actually make it even harder to do that.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the responses that we have seen in developed Western countries, certainly here in the U.S., is the push for more boosters.

    And I saw an analysis that the WHO had done that, on a daily basis, that six times more boosters are given in the developed world than are initial vaccination doses in the developing world.

    And, I mean, this was referred to as a scandal by someone at the WHO. Dr. Tedros earlier this year said he wanted a global moratorium on boosters. Is that still the WHO's position?

  • Dr. Margaret Harris:

    Yes, indeed, it is.

    And, in fact, when we did that analysis, I have to say we were all aghast. We knew the disparity was bad, but we ourselves didn't realize that it was as extreme as that. The reason we wanted the moratorium on boosters is because the critical vaccination you need is the vaccination of the highest-risk populations around the world all at the same time. You need that first dose, that second dose in arms.

    But the science is very, very clear that, if we vaccinate the most at-risk populations, you will reduce the amount of virus circulating, and, therefore, you will reduce the opportunities for this virus to create ever more successful variants.

    One of the other problems with vaccinating — giving extra vaccine, extra doses to people already vaccinated is, it's like you're preaching to the converted. The people you really need to reach in your own populations are those who still aren't sure about getting vaccinated, or those who missed their opportunity, or those who are uncomfortable about coming forward because they're undocumented, all sorts.

    So, that's where you have got to be doing the really hard work.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Margaret Harris of the World Health Organization, thank you so much for being here.

  • Dr. Margaret Harris:

    It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Listen to this Segment