The highly infectious omicron coronavirus variant was first identified in Botswana in November and South African scientists announced its arrival to the world in late November, but new studies have found that it may not be as deadly as the delta variant.
U.S. health officials are reporting near-vertical case growth with positive test rates doubling every two to three days over the last week. This has raised hopes of a quick wave but scientists also warn that record-high cases, high transmissibility, and complacency could lead to greater hospitalization rates anyway.
Preliminary data from the U.K. showed that patients infected with omicron are 50-to-70 percent less likely to end up in the hospital compared to those who have the delta variant.
The omicron variant has quickly overtaken delta in the U.S. and accounts for up to 90 percent of new cases, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC).
Omicron was found to multiply 70 times quicker than the original and the delta variant in tissue samples taken from the bronchus, the main tubes from the windpipe to the lungs, according to a study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong.
The study also found that the new variant grew 10 times slower in lung tissue, which the authors said could be an indicator of lower disease severity.
“Omicron breaking through all prior forms of immunity both natural and vaccinated. Mild and brief syndrome. Pulmonary involvement is rare but when it occurs is easily treated. Expect risk of hospitalization and death will be very low,” Dr Peter McCullough, an expert in the Covid-19 pandemic and other medical emergencies, tweeted.
Other studies in South Africa and Scotland have found that omicron is causing milder infections than previous variants and is less likely to lead to hospitalization among the infected.
How virulent the omicron variant can get is at the heart of the scientific and political debate in many countries as governments grapple with how to respond to the spread of the variant while researchers race to understand it.
To ramp up the response to omicron and the rise in cases, the World Health Organization is supporting countries to improve genomic surveillance to track the virus and detect other potential variants of concern.
U.S. immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of complacency over the omicron variant, saying on ABC News that the volume of new infections “might override a real diminution in severity.”
The unvaccinated — 38 percent of the total U.S. population — are especially vulnerable, Fauci added. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the unvaccinated are five times more likely to test positive for covid and 14 times more likely to die from covid than vaccinated patients.
In South Africa, 1.7 percent of covid cases have resulted in hospitalization during the omicron fourth wave compared to the delta third wave, when 19 percent of those infected were hospitalized, Fortune reported.
Because the new variant spreads so easily, it’s likely that the U.S. will see omicron hospitalization and deaths increase, but it won’t be as severe as during the delta wave of mid-2021, said Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology and microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health.
Photo: Cedric Daniels, 37, of Gonzales, La., recovers from covid-19 at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Baton Rouge, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ted Jackson)
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