The Omicron variant has rung alarm bells across the world and in India, with administrations choosing to shut down as cases increase after the Covid mutant’s emergence, which is dubbed to be even more infectious than the Delta variant. However, experts around the world have reiterated the usually mild nature of the disease caused by the variant.
The Delta variant, which emerged earlier this year, was dubbed the most lethal variant of Covid-19 yet, and caused a devastating wave of the disease in India in April and May. It has also kept up cases in Europe and US throughout the winter months, and officials’ worry increased as Omicron, with its increased transmissibility, was reported from South Africa.
But cases of the variant, which have also reached almost a 1,000 in India, are reportedly much milder. If the variant replaces Delta as the dominant Covid-19 variant across the world, the disease’s lethality may decrease, some experts say. However, others warn that amid increased breakthrough cases, which Omicron is proving to do, healthcare systems may eventually face burden, even if a marginally delayed one.
US Officials Say Covid Deaths, Hospitalisations Low Amid Omicron
COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are “comparatively” low as the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday as cases in the United States reached a record high. “In a few short weeks Omicron has rapidly increased across the country, and we expect will continue to circulate in the coming weeks. While cases have substantially increased from last week, hospitalizations and deaths remain comparatively low right now,” she said, referring to overall cases.
The current seven-day daily average of cases is up 60% over the previous week to about 240,400 per day, she said. The average daily hospitalization rate for the same period is up 14% to about 9,000 per day and deaths are down about 7% at 1,100 per day, Walensky told reporters at a White House briefing. The average number of daily confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States hit a record high on Wednesday.
Lower Hospitalisation-to-case Ratio Than Delta: Anthony Fauci
Early U.S. data suggests Omicron will have a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio than the Delta variant, top U.S. infectious disease Anthony Fauci said at the briefing, but COVID-19 vaccine boosters will be critical in tackling it. “All indications point to a lesser severity of Omicron versus Delta,” he said. “Boosters are critical in getting our approach to Omicron to be optimal.”
India will begin giving its vulnerable populations ‘precaution’ or booster doses starting next year, following suit of many developed nations.
Alarm Bells Not Silent Though, Say Experts
Bloomberg quoted Albert Ko, chair of the department of epidemiology and microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health as saying that because the new variant spreads so easily, the US ‘will likely see continued increases in hospitalizations and deaths, though not as severe as during the delta wave that hit mid-year’.
“We are seeing exponential increases in cases, and a much lower increase in hospitalizations and deaths. But we still have 65,000 people who are currently hospitalized because of Covid, and we are having already 1,500 deaths a day,” Ko told Bloomberg in an interview.
Population Immunity Also Behind Low Hospitalisations?
A South African study suggests reduced risks of hospitalisation 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. 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.
The authors found the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80% lower for those infected with Omicron compared with Delta, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30% 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.
Omicron Could Replace Delta, But Is That Good News?
Experts in Singapore, where 170 new Omicron cases were reported on Wednesday, have warned that the new and supposedly more contagious variant is likely to replace Delta over the coming weeks to months. While Delta is still the most common variant in all continents except Africa, Omicron is spreading very quickly, said Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, executive director of the state-owned Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Bioinformatics Institute here.
However, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michiga Rogel Cancer Center Bhramar Mukherjee has warned against becoming complacent amid news of the variant being mild.
“In terms of getting an infection, the world data shows people with vaccination and past infection are again at appreciable risk of getting COVID, without boosters. Many people in India has had both vaccination and covid, this may be helpful but we do not have data yet. With a lot of people falling sick over a short period of time, even if a small fraction needs medical care, the burden will stress the system. This will affect care of other diseases. We know disruption in care leads to mortality,” she illuminated in a thread on Twitter.
What Do Experts Say About India?
While various Indian states, including Delhi and Maharashtra have initiated lockdown measures amid rising cases, experts have reiterated that the third wave of Covid-19 in India, spurred by Omicron, may not be as severe as the second due to a range of factors.
This includes the documented decreased severity of the disease caused by the variant, high exposure to Covid and vaccination coverage increase.
Dr Shashank Joshi from the Maharashtra Covid task force told CNBC-TV18 in an interview that the third wave had already begun in Mumbai, and that the severe Covid-19 cases were on account of the Delta and not the Omicron variant. He said very few hospitalizations were being seen and most people were being treated at home. “Disease appears to be mild at the moment. We advise no congregation of people, avoid events such as weddings,” he said.
India will see a surge in Omicron-driven Covid cases and a high positivity rate but the infection will hopefully be mild in most people as is being seen in South Africa, Dr Angelique Coetzee, who first identified the variant, said in an earlier report. The chairperson of the South African Medical Association had also said existing vaccines will definitely control the contagion but those unvaccinated are at 100 per cent “risk”.
With inputs from Reuters, PTI.