“Young people, in their twenties to a little over thirties, come in with moderate to severe illness, some requiring intensive care. About 65% are unvaccinated and most of the rest are only half vaccinated, ”said Mathivha. “I am concerned that as the numbers increase, public health facilities will be overwhelmed. “

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potential large influx of patients requiring intensive care.

“We know we have a new variant,” said Mathivha. “The worst case scenario is that it hits us like a delta… we have to have intensive care beds ready.”

What looked like a cluster infection among some university students in Pretoria turned into hundreds of new cases, then thousands, first in the capital and then in nearby Johannesburg, Africa’s largest city. from South.

By studying the outbreak, scientists have identified the new variant which, according to diagnostic tests, is likely responsible for 90% of new cases, according to South African health officials. Early studies show that it has a reproduction rate of 2, which means that each infected person is likely to pass it on to two other people.

The new variant has a high number of mutations that seem to make it more transmissible and help it evade immune responses. The World Health Organization reviewed the data on Friday and named the omicron variant, as part of its system of using Greek letters, as a highly transmissible variant of concern.

“It’s a huge concern. We are all terribly concerned about this virus, ”Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, told The Associated Press.

“This variant is mainly found in Gauteng Province, the Johannesburg region of South Africa. But we have clues from diagnostic tests… which suggest this variant is already all over South Africa, ”said Hanekom, who is also co-chair of the South African COVID Variant Research Consortium.

“The scientific reaction in South Africa is that we have to learn as soon as possible. We know very little, ”he said. “For example, we don’t know how virulent this virus is, which means how serious is this disease it causes?”

A key factor is vaccination. The new variant appears to be spreading the fastest among unvaccinated people. Currently, only around 40% of adult South Africans are vaccinated, and that number is much lower among people between the ages of 20 and 40.

South Africa has nearly 20 million doses of the vaccine – manufactured by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – but the number of people vaccinated is around 120,000 per day, well below the government’s target of 300 000 per day.

As scientists try to learn more about omicron, South Africans can take steps to protect themselves from it, Hanekom said.

“This is a unique opportunity. There is still time for people who have not been vaccinated to go for the vaccination, and this will provide some protection, we believe, against this infection, in particular protection against the serious infections, serious illnesses and death, “he said.” So I would call on people to get vaccinated if they can. “