A South African study suggests reduced risks of hospitalization and severe disease in people infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant versus the Delta one, though the authors say some of that is likely due to high population immunity.
Questions about Omicron’s virulence are at the heart of 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.
The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, sought to assess the severity of disease by comparing data about Omicron infections in October and November with data about Delta infections between April and November, all in South Africa.
The analysis was carried out by a group of scientists from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities including University of the Witwatersrand and University of KwaZulu-Natal.
They used data from four sources: national COVID-19 case data reported to the NICD, public sector laboratories, one large private sector lab and genome data for clinical specimens sent to NICD from private and public diagnostic labs across the country.
The authors found the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 per cent lower for those infected with Omicron compared with Delta, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30 per cent lower.
However, they included several caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the intrinsic characteristics of Omicron.
“It is difficult to disentangle the relative contribution of high levels of previous population immunity versus intrinsic lower virulence to the observed lower disease severity,” they wrote.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, described the South African study as important and said it was the first properly conducted study to appear in pre-print form on the issue of Omicron versus Delta severity.
But Hunter said its main weakness was that it compared Omicron data from one period with Delta data from an earlier period.
“So even though cases of Omicron were less likely to end up in hospital than cases of Delta, it is not possible to say whether this is due to inherent differences in virulence or whether this is due to higher population immunity in November compared to earlier in the year,” he said.
“To a certain extent this does not matter to the patient who only cares that they won’t get very sick. But it is important to know to enable improved understanding of the likely pressures on health services.”
An Imperial College London study published Wednesday found that the risk of needing to stay in hospital for patients with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is 40 per cent to 45 per cent lower than for patients with the Delta variant.
“Overall, we find evidence of a reduction in the risk of hospitalization for Omicron relative to Delta infections, averaging over all cases in the study period,” the researchers said of the study, which analyzed data from PCR-test confirmed cases in England between Dec. 1 and Dec. 14.
Imperial College researchers said the risk of any visit to hospital with Omicron was between 20 per cent and 25 per cent lower than with Delta.
They said their estimates from the research suggested that people who had received at least two vaccine doses remained substantially protected against hospitalization, even if protection against infection has been largely lost against the Omicron variant.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Paul Sandle; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Josephine Mason and Mark Potter)