The Omicron virus variant may lead to less severe cases of COVID-19 than earlier strains, according to data from South Africa, where the variant was first identified last month.
Most of the hospitalized patients admitted with COVID-19 did not need oxygen, a contrast to earlier in the pandemic, the South African Medical Research Council said in a new report.
Of 42 patients at a COVID-19 ward inside one of the hospitals in Gauteng Province, the epicenter of the latest wave, on Dec. 2, 70 percent did not need oxygen and had no respiratory symptoms, researchers said.
They described the patients as “incidental COVID admissions” because the patients were admitted to the hospital for a medical or surgical reason, not COVID-19.
Out of the 13 patients that required supplemental oxygen, nine had a diagnosis of COVID-19.
“This is a picture that has not been seen in previous waves. In the beginning of all three previous waves and throughout the course of these waves, there has always only been a sprinkling of patients on room air in the COVID ward and these patients have usually been in the recovery phase waiting for the resolution of a co-morbidity prior to discharge,” researchers said.
“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,” they added.
Another sign of optimism regarding Omicron? While COVID-19 cases have shot up in recent days, the in-hospital rate of deaths linked to the disease 6.6 percent in the previous two weeks before the report was published, versus 17 percent in the year-and-a-half preceding that time period.
“This may be due to the usual lag between cases and deaths and the trend will become clearer over the next few weeks,” said the researchers, who also cautioned against reading too much into the emerging data.
The first Omicron cases in southern Africa date back to Nov. 9.
Omicron is a variant of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes COVID-19.
South Africa has seen cases soar since then, but the increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and death have been minimal.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a practicing physician and head of the South African Medical Association, said last week that most of the Omicron patients have displayed mild symptoms and did not require hospital care.
There are fears the variant can better evade the protection bestowed by prior infection and/or vaccination, but it’s still too early to tell if that’s the case, experts say.
Most of the patients in the hospital with COVID-19 were unvaccinated, according to the research council
On the other hand, many of the patients in the United States who authorities have confirmed were sickened by the Omicron variant were vaccinated. Most have shown only mild symptoms and recovered without going to a hospital.
“Though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it, thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, said on CNN on Sunday.
“But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to Delta,” he added, before describing the early signs as “encouraging.”
Some patients have seen severe disease, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, a top official with the World Health Organization, added on CBS.
“Initial reports suggest that people with omicron tend to have more mild disease, but it’s too early to tell. And the reason for that is because it takes time for people to go through the full course of their infection. It may take some weeks before we actually understand how many of those individuals will go on to develop severe disease,” she said.