A South African study found that those infected with the Omicron coronavirus variation have a lower chance of hospitalization and severe sickness than those infected with the Delta variant, while the authors note that some of this is likely due to strong community immunity.
In many nations, questions regarding Omicron’s virulence are at the center of scientific and political debate, as governments try to figure out how to respond to the variant’s expansion and researchers try to figure out how to understand it, reports Reuters.
People identified with Omicron in South Africa between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30 were 80 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital than those diagnosed with another variant during the same time period, according to the study, which was not peer-reviewed. Those with Omicron had the same likelihood of having the severe disease as those with other variations among those admitted during that time.
People admitted to the hospital with Omicron in October-November, on the other hand, were 70% less likely to acquire the serious disease than those treated with Delta between April and November, according to the study.
Professor Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), one of the study’s authors, said, “Compellingly, our findings truly support a positive tale of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variations.” Surveillance data showed far fewer hospitalizations and deaths in South Africa’s current Omicron-driven wave of infections than in past waves, despite significantly higher case numbers, she said.
Cohen believes the findings of the study might be applied to other nations in Sub-Saharan Africa with high levels of prior infection. “What’s unclear is whether the image would be similar in places where vaccination rates are high but previous infection rates are low,” she said during a press conference with NICD experts.
IMMUNITY IN A LARGE POPULATION
A team of scientists from the NICD and prominent universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal collaborated on the research.
The authors offered a number of caveats and recommended against drawing any inferences regarding Omicron’s inherent properties.
They said, “It is difficult to distinguish the proportional influence of high levels of past population immunity vs intrinsic lower virulence to the observed decreased illness severity.”
Cohen estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of South Africans had had a previous COVID-19 infection.
The South African study, according to Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, is significant since it is the first well-done study on the question of Omicron vs Delta severity to appear in pre-print form.
When comparing Omicron data from one time to Delta data from another, Hunter said it was difficult to tell whether the decreased hospitalization rates were due to Omicron being less virulent or because population immunity had increased.
“To some extent, this is unimportant to the patient, who is mainly concerned with avoiding becoming seriously ill. However, knowing this is vital in order to gain a better picture of the potential strains on health services “he stated.
Although data on hospitalizations is sparse, the results of a big study published last week by Imperial College London found no evidence that Omicron was milder than Delta. It hasn’t gone through peer review or been published in a medical journal.
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