Omicron: South African report suggest new variant may produce milder disease

A study from South Africa shows that while the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus appears to be more contagious than the delta variant, it may not cause severe disease in most people.

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Researchers say it is too soon to tell if the variant will be as deadly as the delta variant has been shown to be, but that the cases they are seeing now have not been as severe.

“This virus comes with both barrels loaded — high infectivity and potentially the ability for immune evasion. But maybe what it’s lacking is pathogenicity,” said Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

While COVID-19 cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province have doubled every day for the past few weeks, health care officials have not seen an increase in deaths. In fact, according to Greene, who spoke on a call with reporters Monday, there has been no increase in hospitalized people who require oxygen.

According to the study, health care facilities are reporting that the patients they are seeing now with coronavirus are much less sick than those they have treated before. They added that most of those diagnosed with COVID-19 at hospitals were admitted for other reasons and did not display COVID-19 symptoms.

The South African Medical Research Council’s Dr. Fareed Abdullah wrote in a post on Saturday that the difference in this round of COVID-19 infections and previous rounds is that patients are not needing help to breathe.

Abdullah said that during previous infections, “the COVID ward was recognizable by the majority of patients being on some form of oxygen supplementation with the incessant sound of high flow nasal oxygen machines, or beeping ventilator alarms.”

The study looked at the 42 patients with coronavirus who were in the hospital last Thursday, and found that 29, or 70%, were breathing without any kind of aid. Of the 13 using supplemental oxygen, four had it for something other than their COVID-19 infection.

The omicron variant is the newest of the SARS-CoV-2 virus variants that causes COVID-19. It was first detected in South Africa in early November and has since spread to at least 38 countries including the United States. It was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

While the study appears to be good news, health care officials warn it is too early to say if the variant will produce less severe disease in the long run.

Dr. Emily S. Gurley, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times that “It would not be shocking if that’s true, but I’m not sure we can conclude that yet.”