Early reports from South Africa seem to indicate the omicron The coronavirus variant is much more contagious than previous variants while simultaneously causing milder illness, though experts warn that definitive data won’t be available for weeks.
“This virus comes with both barrels loaded – high infectivity and potentially immune-evading ability. But perhaps what it lacks is pathogenicity,” said Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes. in San Francisco.
COVID-19 cases in the South African province of Gauteng are doubling every day and 75% of infections are due to omicron. There is also a week-to-week increase in hospital admissions.
But so far, there has been no increase in deaths or even hospitalized people requiring oxygen, said Greene, who spoke in a call with reporters Monday.
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Currently, the global epicenter of omicron cases is the Tshwane district in Gauteng province northeast of Johannesburg. Cases there have increased exponentially in recent weeks, according to the South African Medical Research Council.
Now early clinical reports are emerging from hospitals in Gauteng, and they are encouraging, Greene said.
“This appears to be a highly infectious virus, but it may not be as virulent or pathogenic as the delta variant,” he said. But more data is needed to reach firm conclusions.
Even the feeling of the hospitals is different this time, the research council’s Dr. Fareed Abdullah wrote in a mail on Saturday.
In the previous three waves of COVID-19 in the country, “the COVID room was recognizable by most patients receiving some type of oxygen supplement with the incessant chirping of high-flow oxygen nasal machines or alarms. of the fans. “
Abdullah is not convinced that it is still possible to know if omicron is softer from what it looks like today.
“This may be due to the usual lag between cases and deaths, and the trend will be clearer in the coming weeks,” he wrote.
Omicron is the most recently discovered variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. It was first detected in southern Africa and was named a “worrisome variant” by the World Health Organization on November 26.
As of Monday, it has been detected in more than 38 countries and a third of the US states..
The risk of reinfection with omicron
Omicron had more than 50 mutations and it appears to be much more contagious than the delta variant.
How well a disease can spread is defined by its basic reproductive number, sometimes written Rt.
For measles, the number is 12 to 18, which means that each person with measles infects an average of 12 to 18 more people. The number of COVID-19 was originally estimated between 1.4 and 2.4, according to the World Health Organization.
The Rt for the omicron variant appears to be about 3.5, he said Trevor bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is tracking it.
“These are very early estimates and all of this will become clearer as we get comparable estimates from different geographies and with different methods,” Bedford tweeted, noting that the data he used is from South Africa.
“Even Rt of 3 is very high,” he wrote. “I hope the prior immunity protects against severe outcomes, but I am very concerned about the size of the epidemic wave in the US and around the world.”
An article published on Thursday data from the South African National Reportable Medical Conditions Surveillance System found that having been previously infected with COVID-19 was not as protective against omicron as it was with the beta and delta variants.
The document, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at the risk of reinfection. The study estimated that omicron may be twice as likely to cause reinfection as previous variants.
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Overall, news of the variant’s transmissibility and virulence could be good news, with the understanding that certainty is weeks away, experts say.
“It would be a great thing if, in fact, omicron displaced delta. If omicron were a less pathogenic virus, it would be very good news for the human race,” Greene said.
It also makes sense for the virus to evolve in the direction of being less dangerous, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Center for Vaccine Education at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“It is never an advantage for the virus to kill you,” he said. “All viruses want to be the common cold, just let yourself catch a cold while you infect others.”