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  • Early data from South Africa suggests that the Omicron variant causes less severe illness.
  • If this turns out to be true, it would be welcome news, especially with the Delta variant still surging in the United States and other countries.
  • But experts stress it’s too early to know for sure if the Omicron variant won’t cause more severe illness than the Delta variant.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in South Africa and gaining traction in many other parts of the world.

But there are early signs from South Africa that this variant may cause less severe cases of COVID-19 than the Delta variant.

If this turns out to be true, it would be welcome news, especially with Delta still surging in the United States and other countries.

However, top U.S. health official Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Dec. 7 that it’s too early to determine precisely the severity of disease caused by Omicron.

“It appears that with the cases that are seen [in South Africa], we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease,” he said at a White House COVID-19 press briefing.

“In fact, it might be — and I underscore ‘might’ — be less severe, as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases,” Fauci said.

Much of this data is preliminary, but “hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll get a much clearer picture,” he added.

Information about the severity of disease caused by Omicron comes mainly from the Gauteng province in South Africa, where the variant was first detected.

In the past week, the 7-day average of cases in the province has increased dramatically from a week earlier, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

A report released Dec. 4 from doctors at the Steve Biko/Tshwane District Hospital Complex in Pretoria suggests that this sharp rise in cases is not accompanied by a similar increase in patients needing supplemental oxygen or intensive care.

Dr. Fareed Abdullah, director of the Office of AIDS and TB Research at the South African Medical Research Council, looked at the 42 people in the hospital last week who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Of those, 70 percent did not need supplemental oxygen. Of the 13 people on supplemental oxygen, four were receiving it for a non-COVID-19 medical condition. Only one person was in intensive care.

Abdullah wrote in the report that this differed dramatically from earlier in the pandemic.

During previous waves, “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,” he wrote.

In addition, people admitted to the COVID-19 ward over the past 2 weeks have stayed for an average of 2.8 days, much shorter than the 8.5 days seen during the previous 18 months.

Experts warn against reading too much into this report, because it represents only the first 2 weeks of the Omicron wave in Tshwane and is based on a small number of people.

Severe illness and deaths also lag behind coronavirus cases, so it could be several weeks before we have a better idea of how virulent Omicron is.

In addition, the results from South Africa “could be influenced by the fact that many in this particular cohort are young individuals,” Fauci said at the Dec. 7 press briefing.

More than 80 percent of the people on the COVID-19 ward were under age 50, an age group that has a lower risk of severe COVID-19.

Abdullah wrote that the lower age profile may be due to the vaccination rates among different age groups. Over 60 percent of people in South Africa ages 50 and older have been vaccinated, with lower rates for younger people.

How effective vaccines will be against the Omicron variant remain unclear.

Pfizer and BioNTech said in preliminary data that three doses of their vaccine appeared to neutralize the variant, but two doses were not as effective.

This data was from a laboratory experiment that used blood from people who had been vaccinated, which was tested against the virus.

It’s unclear how protective and effective the vaccine will be in people exposed to the variant.

Scientists won’t know how virulent Omicron is until the variant spreads widely across age groups and across groups with underlying medical conditions.

They will also be carefully watching to see what happens if the variant picks up speed in countries with high levels of Delta — such as the United States and Europe.

In South Africa, Omicron spread rapidly, but it had little competition from Delta, which was at very low levels at the time.

Even with this data, “it is very likely that the last thing we’ll get a good handle on will be the broad severity, or not, of the infection,” said Fauci.

While a less virulent coronavirus variant has prompted cautious optimism among many health officials in South Africa, the variant could still cause problems by spreading so quickly.

A spike in hospitalizations — even milder cases — can still overwhelm healthcare systems, especially those already stressed by the Delta wave and in countries with low access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The continued wide spread of the virus also increases the chance that another, possibly more problematic, variant will emerge — in the same way that Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and now Omicron, appeared.

”A year ago, we all hoped that by now vaccines would be helping us all emerge from the long, dark tunnel of the pandemic,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a briefing on Dec. 6.

“And yet as the Omicron variant demonstrates, the pandemic is from far over. Persistent vaccine inequity has allowed this to happen,” he said.

It could be another 2 weeks or more before we get a good handle on how severe the illness caused by Omicron is, but Dr. Tammy Lundstrom, chief medical officer and an infectious disease specialist at Trinity Health, said there are things we can do now to protect ourselves.

“The best advice for anybody is: if you haven’t been vaccinated, get out there and get vaccinated. And if you haven’t had a booster, and you’re eligible, get out there and get a booster,” she said.

In addition, “all of the things that we know are helpful at preventing transmission [of the coronavirus] — wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, etc. — are still relevant today.”

She also recommends that people get a flu shot, which will protect against the complications of seasonal influenza.

“Flu is starting to tick up, especially in the southern U.S.,” Lundstrom said. “And we are behind last year, in terms of the numbers of people getting flu shots.”