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Omicron Protects Against Delta Variant; May Replace It, Study Shows

The first microscopic image of Omicron. Preliminary studies say that the variant is much more contagious than any previous variations of the coronavirus but causes much less severe disease. Credit: HKU

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus appears to grant protection against the Delta strain and may replace it, according to a new study out of South Africa, where the variant was first reported.

The immunity created in the bodies of those who contract the Omicron strain of the virus confers more than four times the protection against the Delta variant than having no protection whatsoever.

The team who undertook the study stated that Omicron could displace Delta because of this ability.

New variant less severe, according to recent studies, but exponentially more contagious

And if that comes to pass, that might be just what societies around the world need, as hospitalizations from Delta continue to spike all across the US and Europe. All indications so far are that the omicron variant is less severe overall, leading to less severe illness and fewer hospitalizations.

The World Health Organization reports that Omicron is spreading faster than any previous Covid variant, and a Hong Kong study found that it replicates a staggering 70 times faster in human airways. But importantly, the infection it creates in the lungs, where it lodges, appears to be less severe.

Still, the incredible contagiousness of Omicron, which causes it to spread so quickly that in many places, graphs of infections show it taking an almost vertical trajectory, would mean that it will still result in a great number of hospitalizations due to the sheer volume of people who will be infected.

The team of South African scientists, led by Khadija Khan at the Africa Health Research Institute, wrote in their findings “These results are consistent with Omicron displacing the Delta variant, since it can elicit immunity which neutralizes Delta, making re-infection with Delta less likely.”

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, and the data available right now is only preliminary. Many are still concerned that the new variant can start having a negative effect on hospitalizations while the Delta variant is still raging.

South African study: Omicron sufferers 70% less likely to have severe form of the disease

The findings are of particular note to Americans and Europeans, who are experiencing spikes in infections and where hospitals that are straining at the seams due to the ongoing Delta variant infections.

If the omicron variant comes to take the place of Delta and is indeed milder than the variants of the past, “the incidence of Covid-19 severe disease would be reduced and the infection may shift to become less disruptive to individuals and society,” the scientists say.

It was only in November that the Omicron variant was first reported in Botswana and South Africa. Before long, it was reported all around the world, from the Americas to Asia and Europe.

Because of the urgent nature of grappling with the virus and its effects on society, scientists all over the world are now publishing their findings before they can be evaluated by other experts.

The South African study was admittedly a small one, tracking only 13 individuals, 11 of whom had the omicron variant of the virus. They represented a cross section of society, however, with seven of them being vaccinated, three with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and four who had the Johnson & Johnson inoculation.

The immune response of those who had the omicron mutation appeared to increase protection against the delta variant more than fourfold as much as two weeks after the participants first enrolled in the study. The subjects also showed an amazing increase in the ability of their antibodies to block reinfection with the Omicron mutation, amounting to fourteen fold.

However, at this point the scientists stated that it is still unclear whether this greatly increased protection is due to antibodies produced as a result of exposure to Omicron, vaccination or immunity conferred by a previous infection. Still, all those who had been vaccinated demonstrated that they enjoyed stronger protection against the virus.

Just this week, with Delta still responsible for the vast majority of hospitalizations in the US, Omicron represented 58% of all Covid cases that had been sequenced; Delta represented 41% last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Right now, over 70,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with the coronavirus, which is an increase of 3% over last week, according to statistics from the Health and Human Services Department shared on Dec. 27.

While it is still unknown exactly how many Omicron-related infections will be sending people to the hospital, the extremely contagious strain is causing huge spikes in the number of infections nationwide.

The US reported an average of more than 237,000 daily new cases for the seven-day period that ended on Monday; this represents  a staggering increase of 66% over the past week, according to a CNBC report using data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.

Still, the vital real-world studies that have been carried out on the ground in South Africa and the United Kingdom, where it was detected very early on, show that those infected with Omicron do develop milder forms of the illness compared with Delta.

Ultimately, the South African scientists found that those infected with Omicron are 70% less likely to experience severe disease compared with those suffering with the delta variant. However, they also noted that their small study was hampered by limited information on the vaccination status of its subjects as well as immunity from prior infections, which is widespread in Africa because so many have already contracted the virus.

The U.K. Health Security Agency, equivalent to the US’ centers for Disease Control and Prevention, demonstrated in its own study that Omicron sufferers are 50% to 70% less likely to require hospital admission compared with those who have the Delta variant.

However, as have all other authorities, the agency urged the public to keep in mind that these results are “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron hospitalizations right now, as well as the inability to study all previous infections, and because the Omicron strain has not spread as widely as former variants in older age groups.

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