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Does Omicron kill later? This is behind the rise in deaths in South Africa


After first appearing there in November 2021, the omicron variant caused a violent wave of infections in South Africa. But while the number of cases has been falling steadily since mid-December, deaths have continued to rise. FOCUS Online explains what’s behind it.

Cases of infection are falling, deaths are rising

cases of infection: From early to mid-December, South Africa reported new record numbers of new infections almost every day. The country reached its peak on December 17 with around 24,000 cases within 24 hours. This day also marks the turning point of the wave: since December 17, the cases have been falling day by day. On Tuesday, the country reported only 1,629 new infections.
Deaths: The curve of deaths is quite different at the moment. Although these rose only slightly from the beginning to the middle of December, they have continued to rise steadily in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the country reported 87 deaths within 24 hours, on December 17 there were 35.

Two explanations for the different waves

Cambridge mathematician Ridhwaan Suliman also noticed the different wave movements in South Africa and shared a graphic on Twitter. At the same time, the scientist provided a first possible explanation for this: “A greater delay and/or slower reporting.” This means the following:1. The greater delayIf we look at the number of deaths reported in connection with corona cases, one thing has become clear since the beginning of the pandemic: They always reflect the infection process from two to three weeks before.Because if a person gets infected with Corona, it usually takes a few days before they get to the intensive care unit. Covid patients usually stay there for around ten days. If they finally die, their death becomes round in the statistics two to three weeks later than the infection noted. So it’s only logical that the wave of deaths will lag behind that of new infections. Possibly, Suliman suggests, is this delay with Omikron even stronger than with the previous virus variants. It would therefore take even more time for a reported case of infection to be recorded as a death. The data from South Africa suggest that. However, there is no evidence for this so far, it is only a hypothesis.2. The slower reportingSuliman also cites the slower reporting as another explanation. This means that deaths are recorded later than they actually occurred. The explanation for this could be, for example, delays in reporting on the Christmas holidays and New Year. The fact that South Africa recorded extremely high numbers of infections until mid-December could also explain why capacities were overloaded and reports could be delayed. At the request of FOCUS Online Virologist Friedemann Weber brought up another possible theory that could explain the delay in deaths in South Africa. Read more about it here: Fatalities increase massively: 3 factors could explain South Africa’s new omicron curves

Mild does not mean that the omicron variant is harmless

More and more data shows that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is milder than, say, Delta. That doesn’t mean nobody dies from it, though. Developments in South Africa are therefore by no means surprising. As soon as the new virus subtype began to spread, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach pointed out that a mild variant could still be dangerous. He was referring to a graphic created by Canadian biologist Malgorzata Gasperowicz and shared by many scientists and medical professionals via Twitter. It shows how deaths can also rise sharply with milder but more infectious variants and cause significantly more deaths than Variants that are less infectious but trigger severe courses. “Here you can see again in the model calculation why corona variants, which are much more contagious, kill significantly more people than more deadly ones, which do not spread quickly,” commented Health Minister Karl Lauterbach on the graphic. “Therein lies the danger of omicron.” So that means for the unvaccinated that you shouldn’t rely on the fact that omicron per se triggers milder courses and is less dangerous than delta. Unvaccinated people should get vaccinated as soon as possible, vaccinated people should get boosters as soon as possible so as not to become seriously ill.

In real time: On Corona station (display)

A report on everyday life in corona intensive care units

What do the figures from South Africa mean for Germany?

It is not clear what this data from South Africa means for the development of the number of cases and deaths in Germany. Experts assume that the number of cases will continue to rise sharply in Germany for a few more weeks and then fall rapidly after the peak. It is not clear how high the cases will climb by then. After all, the population in South Africa cannot be compared directly with that in Germany. The residents are on average younger than the Germans, and the vaccination rate is significantly lower.

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