Coronavirus Omicron variant
Coronavirus Omicron variant iStock

Cases of coronavirus in Africa nearly doubled over a week as the Omicron variant has spread, but hospitalizations in South Africa, where the new variant was discovered, remain low, the UN said Thursday, according to AFP.

In a weekly online press briefing, the World Health Organization's Africa branch said the continent had recorded 107,000 extra cases in the week to Sunday, compared with 55,000 in the previous week.

Omicron "is reaching more countries in Africa," it said, adding that research was being stepped up to see whether the new variant was specifically behind the sharp rise.

The biggest surge in numbers -- 140 percent on average -- was in the south of the continent.

However, in South Africa, which discovered the new variant last month, "severe cases remain low," the WHO said in a statement.

"Emerging data from South Africa indicates that Omicron may cause less severe illness," it said.

"Data which looked at hospitalizations across South Africa between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU (intensive care unit) occupancy was only 6.3 %. (This) is very low compared with the same period when the country was facing the peak linked to the Delta variant in July," the WHO said.

The agency also reiterated its objections to travel restrictions, which it said had been issued by more than 70 countries and were overwhelmingly aimed at southern Africa, even though countries in the region had been "transparent with their data."

Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said earlier this week that there is no indication that the Omicron variant causes more severe disease than previous COVID-19 variants, and existing vaccines should protect people who contract it against the worst outcomes of the disease.

The Chief Medical Advisor to US President Joe Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that the Omicron variant is “almost certainly” less severe than the Delta variant.

“Real-world evidence is accumulating rapidly — literally on a daily basis — to allow us to determine increase in cases, possible increase in reproductive number, and the rapid replacement of Delta by Omicron in certain situations,” Fauci said at a White House press briefing.

“It’s too early to be able to determine the precise severity of the disease, but inklings that we are getting — and we must remember these are still in the form of anecdotal, but hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll get a much clearer picture — but it appears that with the cases that are seen we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease,” he added

“In fact, it might be, and I underscore might, be less severe,” Fauci stated.