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Visitors at Camps Bay beach after months of lockdowns and worries about the spread of COVID-19 in Cape Town. Image Credit: REUTERS

Johannesburg: South Africa, which first raised the alarm about the new fast-spreading coronavirus variant, gave the world one of the last big good surprises of the year, announcing that the Omicron wave had crested without a huge surge in deaths. It abruptly lifted a night time curfew, allowing celebrations to ring in 2022.

The number of infections fell by roughly 30% to just under 90,000 for the week ending December 25, down from some 127,000 in the prior corresponding period, government data show. The number of hospital admissions has also been significantly lower over the past 1 weeks.

The country’s medical system has capacity to provide “routine health services,” authorities said in a Thursday statement, adding that the government would roll back certain pandemic control measures.

The relatively swift passage of the latest South African wave is likely to be keenly watched in many other countries struggling with a spike in Omicron-driven infections. But at least one prominent South African infectious-disease expert has cautioned against extrapolating from the country’s data, given its relatively young population. South Africa is also in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer, a time of the year where respiratory illnesses are relatively uncommon.

Nonetheless, the decline in hospital admissions that came “almost in real-time” with the dive in case count suggests Omicron patients require less medical intervention than those infected with previous versions of the novel coronavirus, said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Australia.

Preliminary studies have also indicated that omicron tends to cause milder disease than the coronavirus wild type and other variants, though experts have warned that its highly transmissible nature still poses a risk to health care systems globally.

Even as South African authorities warned that omicron still poses a threat, they lifted restrictions such as a late-night curfew. Restaurants and bars will be allowed to serve alcohol past 11pm, and larger indoor gatherings are permitted, so long as there is social distancing. A mask mandate in public areas is still in place.

The relaxation of pandemic control measures is unlikely to lead to a “dramatic” spike in infections even if the decline in cases slows, said Bennett, the Australian expert.

“The fact that hospitalizations are declining is reinforcing that this is probably coming to its natural decline,” she said. “Those restrictions, if they’re not . . . a full lockdown, then it’s a marginal difference.”

In a peer-reviewed paper released Tuesday, South African researchers again underscored “decreased severity of disease” after studying data of 466 covid patients recently hospitalized in Tshwane, a metropolitan area that was badly hit by omicron.

The scientists found that the patients required, on average, four days in hospital, or about half that needed earlier in the pandemic.

“A clearer picture has emerged now that we are well beyond the peak of this wave,” wrote Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council, the study’s lead author, on Twitter. “This Omicron wave is over in the City of Tshwane. It was a flash flood more than a wave.”