Early data from Scotland and England show some reason for cautious optimism regarding the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The research – not yet peer-reviewed – suggests that, at least in the early spread, the Omicron variant led to lower hospitalization rates.
The first work employed the Early Pandemic Evaluation and Enhanced Surveillance of COVID-19 (EAVE II) to establish hospitalization rates and vaccine effectiveness of the variant in Scotland between November 1 and December 14. Researchers found a two-thirds reduction in hospitalizations for double-vaccinated people who contracted Omicron compared to Delta. This is positive, but the caveats are that the data focused on a small number of people who were younger compared to the most at-risk group.
“Although small in number, the study is good news. The two-thirds reduction in hospitalisation of double vaccinated young people compared to Delta indicates that Omicron will be milder for more people,” Profesor James Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the studies said in a statement.
“There are a few things to bear in mind. The study is rigorous but it is early (thus might change a bit with more data and more studies will report in the weeks ahead). It should be noted that some South African scientists have been saying Omicron was milder for some time. Since the study was early in the pandemic, it focussed on younger people. The elderly are of course more vulnerable.”
Still positive – but not quite as positive – is the work from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team. They find that the reduction of hospitalization is in the range in the range of 20-25 percent, but that waning immunity might, unfortunately, level the playing field.
“Our analysis shows evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalisation associated with the Omicron variant compared with the Delta variant. However, this appears to be offset by the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection with the Omicron variant,” Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said in a statement. “Given the high transmissibility of the Omicron virus, there remains the potential for health services to face increasing demand if Omicron cases continue to grow at the rate that has been seen in recent weeks.”
There are still many uncertainties regarding Omicron, including if it truly has milder symptoms compared to other variants or it is just coming against a more immunized population. Either way, governments should take advantage of the situation to get the spread under control.
“The study highlights the same risk as EAVE II, Omicron is not a harmless infection, it will cause serious illness and the more people it infects the more people will end up in hospital,” Professor Naismith explained in another statement.
“Decreasing the spread of the virus to give time to improve population coverage with the booster is the best strategy.”