Speed Reads

'qualified good news'

3 new studies, with caveats, add to evidence Omicron is less severe than other COVID-19 variants

Thee separate studies out of England, Scotland, and South Africa on Wednesday suggested the new Omicron coronavirus is less likely to send people to the hospital and usually produces milder symptoms. The Omicron variant is also infecting more people at a much faster rate, among other caveats, so "this is a qualified good-news story," said Jim McMenamin, national COVID-19 incident director at Public Health Scotland and a co-author of the Scottish study.

"Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at" these new studies, Manuel Ascano Jr., a virus researcher at Vanderbilt University, tells The Associated Press. "It is clearly good news, to a degree," said Neil Ferguson, who led the English research team at Imperial College London.

In South Africa, where the sharp surge in Omicron cases appears to have peaked and started to decline after a month, researchers found that people infected with Omicron had a roughly 70 percent lower risk of hospitalization versus other variants. The Scottish study, from a team at University of Edinburgh, found Omicron patients were two-thirds less likely to be hospitalized than Delta patients.

The Imperial College researchers found that those infected with Omicron were 15 to 20 percent less likely to go to the emergency room and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized overnight. Their analysis also found that Omicron's mutations made it intrinsically milder than Delta, BBC News reports. But Omicron hospitalizations are also believed to be stalling because majorities of the populations under study have some immunity from vaccines or previous infections.

The Imperial College team estimated that people with no prior immunity were only about 11 percent less likely to visit the ER with Omicron than Delta. The Scottish study found the odds of being reinfected are 10 times higher with Omicron than Delta, but that vaccines still provide some protection against symptomatic infection, especially if you got a third dose. Given the vigorous transmissibility of Omicron, hospitals are still expected to become overwhelmed, but mostly with unvaccinated people.

"If you are unvaccinated and you have never been infected, it is a little less severe than Delta," William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells The New York Times. "But that's a bit like saying you're being hit over the head with one hammer instead of two hammers. And the hammers are more likely to hit you now."