News in South Africa 24th December:
1. Vaccine boosters approved:
The Department of Health has approved the implementation of Covid-19 vaccine booster doses for those who have received their initial series of Johnson and Johnson or Pfizer vaccines.
In a WhatsApp statement released by the department, it outlined the rollout as follows:
- From 24 December 2021, those who have taken a single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at least two months ago, will be allowed to have a Johnson and Johnson booster shot.
- From 28 December 2021, those who have completed their two-dose Pfizer series at least six months ago, will be allowed to have a Pfizer booster shot.
The government has also confirmed that those who have had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are allowed to receive a Johnson and Johnson booster shot at least six months after their second dose.
However, those who have received a single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine will not be allowed to receive a Pfizer booster shot.
The Department of Health’s decision to roll out booster shots follows regulatory body SAHPRA’s approval of the Johnson and Johnson booster shot earlier today.
The Pfizer booster shot had already been approved by SAHPRA on 8 December, but its rollout was subject to the approval of the Department of Health until today.
2. Omicron less severe than other variants:
New Covid-19 data out of South Africa, which has been ravaged by the Omicron variant in recent weeks, suggests the current surge has resulted in far fewer deaths than previous surges with similar case numbers.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former FDA commissioner, shared a series of graphs to Twitter on Thursday, highlighting the impact of Omicron on South Africa, which was first to sequence the new variant.
In the Gauteng province of South Africa, an area that was hit particularly hard by Omicron, the number of daily hospitalisations and deaths in the past month has been substantially fewer than previous Covid-19 peaks in the area throughout the pandemic.
ICU admissions in Gauteng are down about 80% on a relative basis, according to Gottlieb, while those who are being hospitalised for the virus are having more acute stays.
In the three past surges, daily deaths were closely tied to daily case numbers in the country. But in the last month, deaths have stayed relatively low, despite a substantial uptick in cases.
The real world data appears to align with a recent study out of South Africa that suggests reduced risk of hospitalisation and severe disease in Omicron cases compared to people infected with the Delta variant.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was conducted by researchers at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, comparing data about Omicron cases from October and November with data about Delta infections from April to November in South Africa.
The authors emphasised that some of their findings are likely due to high immunity among the population.
3. Caution about SA Omicron data:
Data from SA which suggests the Omicron coronavirus variant is 70% to 80% less severe than Delta should not be extrapolated to all countries, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) said on Thursday.
A South African study published on Wednesday found that people diagnosed with Omicron in the country in October and November were 80% less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant in the same period.
“We should interpret the data from SA with a lot of caution,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, told an online media briefing. “This is early days and public health practice is local.”
“Let’s be careful not to extrapolate what we are seeing in SA across the continent, or across the world,” he said.
He said that factors such as the young median age of the SA population could be playing a part in what was being observed in the country, and that differing vaccination rates between countries could also lead to different outcomes.
Two studies from Britain have also given indications that the risk of hospitalisation is lower with Omicron, though to a lesser extent.
An Imperial College London study found the risk of a hospital stay was 40% to 45% lower for Omicron than for Delta, while in Scotland a reduced risk of hospitalisation was also observed in an analysis of early data.
Nkengasong said the effectiveness of all Covid-19 vaccines was reduced, to a greater or lesser extent, against Omicron, and urged Africans who were not vaccinated yet to come forward, and those who were to get their booster shots.
“It is very clear that the Omicron variant is challenging all vaccines,” he said, adding that Africa had barely reached the 10% mark in terms of the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated.
4. Costly business mistakes:
New research reveals that South African small businesses are making mistakes costing them an average of R91,311 per year due to a lack of financial knowledge. This rises to R136,205 for businesses with 10-49 employees, demonstrating that more support is needed to close the financial literacy gap.
The findings are based on a survey of 400 entrepreneurs conducted by global small business platform Xero. The research discovered that the four most expensive mistakes businesses made over the last 12 months were:
- Being irresponsible with cash flow (41%)
- Not investing in financial tech fast enough (36%)
- Not knowing about or not using appropriate government support schemes (32%)
- Being too slow to adapt their business (29%)
Four-fifths (80%) of small business owners are calling for greater advice and support to help avoid mistakes in future. This is understandable given that over a third (38.4%) currently rely on themselves for financial advice, with 37.91% turning to friends and family for help.
Colin Timmis, country manager for Xero South Africa, said: “Financial literacy is the backbone of any small business. Having a clear view of cash flow and what money is coming in and out is the only way to make informed decisions. Small businesses simply can’t afford to make mistakes.
“We need to see a greater focus on financial skills development and more collaboration between government and the technology sector to educate owners on the tools available to them.”
Tax is one of the biggest knowledge gaps
More than a quarter (27%) of small business respondents said submitting tax returns is one of the top areas they struggle with. Meanwhile, 41% said they wish their interactions with the South African Revenue Service could be more efficient. Almost a quarter (23%) of businesses have received a penalty fine because they did not understand the tax rules.
5. Airlines face rough period:
Airlines face an uncertain few weeks over the holidays and into January as the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant upends what’s traditionally one of the busiest periods of the year for flight sales.
Discount giant Ryanair Holdings Plc slashed its earnings guidance Wednesday as travel restrictions related to the strain weakened Christmas and New Year bookings, while Deutsche Lufthansa AG said Thursday it plans to cut about 10% of its winter schedule.
Other European carriers will likely be assessing their capacity plans, according to Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Alex Irving.
“Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air all operate in broadly the same market,” Irving said. “It’s highly unlikely the same pressures affecting Ryanair aren’t hitting other airlines.”
Although airline stocks rallied Thursday following reports that Omicron is likely not as severe as previous iterations of Covid-19, countries across Europe are bringing back travel restrictions and even lockdowns. Britain is battling record daily case numbers and France and Germany’s ban on UK travellers was part of the reason for the gloom at Dublin-based Ryanair.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that the group is seeing a “sharp decline” in bookings from mid-January to February with the biggest drop in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium.
While Ryanair and Lufthansa opted to update their outlooks, other carriers may hold off until they report their next set of financial results, Irving said. While Ryanair’s fiscal year ends in March, EasyJet’s runs through next September and the carrier has yet to issue financial guidance for the period.
In the meantime, close-in bookings are likely to be particularly impacted as people postpone trips.
The latest viral variant has disrupted a nascent travel recovery that began last summer, when Europe responded to a successful vaccine rollout by reopening borders, followed by the resumption of transatlantic travel in November. Carriers had added capacity for the winter months, betting on pent-up demand in what’s traditionally a slower season for flights.
The outlook for next year is still hard to assess, according to Irving, being dependent on how serious the Omicron strain turns out to be. If it’s less dangerous than delta, as by reports out of South Africa and elsewhere, travel demand could bounce back quickly as governments relax restrictions.
In the short-term, bookings for Christmas may hold up despite the headlines as people prioritise seeing friends and family or take long-awaited holidays.