The new coronavirus variant Omicron has now become dominant in South Africa and is driving a sharp increase in new infections, health officials say.

Some 11,500 new Covid infections were registered in the latest daily figures.

That is a sharp rise on the 8,500 cases confirmed the previous day.

By contrast, daily infections were averaging between 200 and 300 in mid-November, a top South African scientist told the BBC.

Omicron has now been detected in at least 24 countries around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Those who have already had other variants of coronavirus do not appear to be protected against Omicron but vaccines are still believed to protect against severe disease, according to top scientists from the global health body and South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“Previous infection used to protect against Delta but now with Omicron that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at NICD.

The full picture in South Africa will not become clear until “people get so sick that they need to go to hospital” which is generally “three, four weeks later,” says Prof Salim Abdool Karim of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus.

“But the feedback we’re getting from the ground is that there’s really no red flags – we’re not seeing anything dramatically different, what we’re seeing is what we are used to,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

The BBC’s Pumza Fihlani in South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg, says that restaurants and supermarkets remain packed, ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays. People are talking about the new variant – but so far there’s little panic and, according to scientists, there shouldn’t be.

South Africa was the first country to report on the highly mutated new variant. The NICD says more than 70% of all the virus genomes it sequenced last month have been of the new variant.

India, Ghana, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the latest countries to have confirmed their first cases of Omicron. Others including the UK, US and Germany have also seen people infected by the new variant.

Many questions about Omicron remain to be answered, including how much protection current vaccines provide.

The WHO has categorised it as a “variant of concern”, and says early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk.

graph showing covid cases in South Africa

Earlier this week, countries around the world restricted travel from southern Africa as details of the spread emerged.

This prompted South Africa’s foreign ministry to complain that it was being punished – instead of applauded – for discovering Omicron.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later warned that blanket Covid measures were penalising southern Africa.

The rate of new infection is expected to increase in what is now the beginning of the fourth wave in South Africa, and the national health department says there has also been a slight increase in hospital admissions.

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