South Africa appears to have passed the peak of its omicron variant-driven fourth coronavirus wave, the country’s cabinet announced Thursday, adding that there was only a “marginal increase” in fatalities, which remained low compared to previous spikes.

The number of infections fell by roughly 30 percent to just under 90,000 for the week ending Dec. 25, down from some 127,000 in the prior corresponding period, government data show. The number of hospital admissions has also been significantly lower over the past 1½ weeks.

The country’s medical system has capacity to provide “routine health services,” authorities said in a statement Thursday, adding that the government would roll back certain pandemic control measures.

The relatively swift passage of the latest South African wave is likely to be keenly watched in many other countries struggling with their own surges in omicron-driven infections. But at least one prominent South African infectious-disease expert has cautioned against extrapolating from the country’s data, given South Africa’s relatively young population. The country is also in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer, a time of the year when respiratory illnesses are relatively uncommon.

Nonetheless, the decline in hospital admissions that came “almost in real-time” with the dive in the infection count suggests omicron patients require less medical intervention than those infected with previous versions of the novel coronavirus, said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Australia.

Omicron is the fifth coronavirus variant of concern and is spreading rapidly around the world. Here’s what we know. (Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Preliminary studies also have indicated that omicron tends to cause milder disease than the coronavirus wild type and other variants, although experts have warned that its high transmissibility still poses a risk to health-care systems globally.

Even as South African authorities warned that omicron still poses a threat, they lifted restrictions such as a late-night curfew. Restaurants and bars will be allowed to serve alcohol past 11 p.m., and larger indoor gatherings are permitted, so long as there is social distancing. A mask mandate in public areas is still in place.

The relaxation of pandemic control measures is unlikely to lead to a “dramatic” spike in infections even if the decline in cases slows, said Bennett, the Australian expert.

“The fact that hospitalizations are declining is reinforcing that this is probably coming to its natural decline,” she said. “Those restrictions, if they’re not … a full lockdown, then it’s a marginal difference.”

In a peer-reviewed paper released Tuesday, South African researchers again underscored “decreased severity of disease” after studying data of 466 covid-19 patients recently hospitalized in Tshwane, a metropolitan area that was badly hit by omicron.

The scientists found that the patients required, on average, four days in hospital, or about half the time needed earlier in the pandemic.

“A clearer picture has emerged now that we are well beyond the peak of this wave,” wrote Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council, the study’s lead author, on Twitter. “This Omicron wave is over in the City of Tshwane. It was a flash flood more than a wave.”

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