Medical experts are cautiously optimistic that omicron does not cause more severe disease, based on early reports out of South Africa

There are early hints that indicate the omicron variant is more easy to transmit but it may not cause more severe disease than delta, though none of the reports are medical studies or peer-reviewed. 

The identification of the new omicron variant of concern less than two weeks ago has since sent markets spinning, put health care systems on guard and led to a complicated mix of new travel restrictions around the world. In the U.S., the concern is that omicron is emerging at a time when temperatures are dropping, more people are spending time indoors and holiday celebrations are underway.

“The question is: how catastrophic this outlook could become in terms of severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths in North American and European countries in their prime infection-spreading season?” SVB Leerink analysts wrote in an investor note on Monday. 

Several new details about omicron emerged over the weekend. Health authorities in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, say there has been an “exponential rise” in cases in Tshwane District, which is where Pretoria is located, according to a new report published Sunday by the South African Medical Research Council. Hospital admissions are increasing in Gauteng Province, the region home to Pretoria and Johannesburg and where one-quarter of the country’s population lives. But they said that most hospitalized COVID-19 patients do not need oxygen at this time. 

“The main observation that we have made over the last two weeks is that the majority of patients in the COVID wards have not been oxygen dependent,” the council wrote. “This is a picture that has not been seen in previous waves.”

If this turns out to be true, this would be good news.

“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, the president’s chief medical advisor, told CNN’s “State of the Union” 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.”

That said, there is also growing concern about the infectiousness of omicron, and to what degree it can break through vaccine-induced or natural immunity.  

Researchers published a research letter this weekend that said two fully vaccinated individuals, one coming from South Africa and one from Canada, were staying across the hall from each other in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong. The individual travelers had tested negative for the virus 72 hours before their flights; however, both tested positive for the variant, within four days of each other.

“Detection of omicron variant transmission between two fully vaccinated persons across the corridor of a quarantine hotel has highlighted this potential concern,” they wrote. 

The variant so far has been identified in 16 U.S. states.

The latest COVID-19 numbers

The daily average case count in the U.S. rose, to 109,822 on Sunday, the highest since Sept. 30 and a 19% increase from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times Tracker. The daily average death toll was up 5%, to 1,178, while hospitalizations increased 18% to a seven-week high of 58,992.

Meanwhile, about 198.9 million people in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and roughly 23% have received a booster shot.

Here’s what else you should know

Poland and Norway plan to announce new pandemic restriction later this week as a result of the omicron variant, while New York City announced several new rules, including vaccine requirements in indoor restaurants for children and a vaccine mandate for all private employers.

Christin Hakim

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