Two studies from the United Kingdom are shining a positive light on the severity of the Omicron coronavirus strain.
A study from Imperial College London saw that hospitalization risks for Omicron cases are around 20 percent lower than Delta cases. Another study from the University of Edinburgh found that the risk of hospitalization in patients infected with Omicron was two-thirds less than patients with Delta. Furthermore, the study showed that young people between the ages of 20 and 39, which were the primary subjects of the study, were shown to develop less severe cases of COVID-19.
These studies back up those that have already been conducted in South Africa. The Omicron variant was first detected there, although its exact origins are still unknown. However, data from the region shows that hospital admissions attributed to Omicron are lower than those attributed to Delta.
« Our overall admission rate is in the region of around 2 percent to 4 percent compared to previously, where it was closer to 20 percent, » said epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim. « So even though we’re seeing a lot of cases, very few are being admitted. »
The U.K. studies have yet to be peer-reviewed. However, many are optimistic that the surges of Omicron that have been dominating the globe will not be as devastating as those attributed to the Mu or Delta strains.
« Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this, » said Vanderbilt University biochemist Manuel Ascano Jr.
Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.
The Imperial College analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.
Ascano noted the studies have limitations. For example, the findings are specific to a certain point in time during a quickly changing situation in the United Kingdom and other countries may not fare the same way.
Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that in the Scottish study, the percentage of younger people was almost twice as high for the Omicron group compared with the Delta group, and that « could have biased the conclusions to less severe outcomes caused by omicron. »
He nonetheless said the data was interesting and suggested Omicron might lead to less severe disease. But he added: « It’s important to emphasize that if Omicron has a much higher transmission rate compared to Delta, the absolute number of people requiring hospitalization might still increase, despite less severe disease in most cases. »
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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