UNMC Monitoring Rise in New COVID-19 Variants in South Africa

May 4, 2022, 1:14 p.m. ·

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Dr. James Lawler (Photo Courtesy, University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine)

Doctors at the University of Nebraska Medical Center say the US could see a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases within the next few months. Dr. James Lawler, a co-director of UNMC's Global Center for Health Security, said he's monitoring a quick rise in new COVID-19 variants in South Africa.

"One of the things I'm concerned about is there's just so much similarity between the rise of the BA.4 and BA.5 [COVID-19 variants] and the rise of omicron," Lawler said Tuesday.

"I think it's important to note that there's never been an upswing of this magnitude that hasn't led to a significant epidemic wave in South Africa, and the hospitalizations are following suit," Lawler said.

Lawler and his colleagues point to urban provinces in South Africa, that are showing a higher rate of hospitalizations and cases. Lawler said the Gauteng province recorded a 20 percent positivity rate one week ago.

"If you look at the sequencing data coming out of South Africa now and take into account these are a couple weeks old, you can see that already 70 percent or more by the third week of April were BA.4 and BA.5," Lawler said. "This seems to be clearly taking over as the dominant strains."

Lawler said there are about two dozen known cases of the new variants in the US.

"These data are very concerning. Again, this looks to be very similar to the picture we saw with BA.1 with omicron," Lawler said. "We all need to keep a very close eye on this."

According to Nebraska data, there were nearly 900 COVID-19 cases reported last week. That's up from 681 the week before.

Nebraska finally saw a relief in COVID-19 hospitalizations after the omicron wave crippled hospitals. Medical centers said they had to deny care to at least hundreds of people between the December 2021 and February 2022 COVID surge.

Dr. Lawler predicted the US may see a rise in cases in early summer.