British Studies Suggest Omicron Coronavirus Less Severe

    28 December 2021

    Early data suggests that people infected with the Omicron coronavirus are 50 to 70 percent less likely to be hospitalized than those with the Delta, Britain's public health agency announced Thursday, December 23rd.

    The new finding on COVID-19 disease was "a small ray of sunlight," said one researcher.

    The data adds to growing evidence that omicron produces milder sickness than other versions of the virus. But scientists warn that reductions in severity must be weighed against the fact that omicron spreads much faster than Delta.

    Medical staff wearing PPE, on a ward for COVID-19 patients at King's College Hospital, in south east London, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
    Medical staff wearing PPE, on a ward for COVID-19 patients at King's College Hospital, in south east London, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

    Based on cases in Britain, a person with omicron is estimated to be 31 percent to 45 percent less likely to go to a hospital emergency department compared to someone with Delta. And the same person is "50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital," the agency said.

    The British Public Health Security Agency said the finding has a high level of uncertainty. It said it was based on a small number of omicron patients in hospitals and that most of them were in younger age groups. As of December 20, 132 people had been admitted to U.K. hospitals with confirmed omicron. Fourteen of them died, all between the ages of 52 and 96.

    Experts not involved with the research called it promising.

    "To me, it's a small ray of sunlight among all the dark clouds," said Dr. Jonathan Li, director of the Harvard/Brigham Virology Specialty Laboratory.

    The signs that omicron may cause less severe disease support lab data suggesting omicron does not grow as well in cells of the lungs, Li said.

    The findings add to similar data from South Africa, added Dr. Bruce Walker. He is director of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

    Walker said there are still unknowns, such as the relative severity of omicron in someone vaccinated compared with someone who had COVID-19 before or someone who is unvaccinated and has not had the disease.

    Vaccination remains critical, he said. Walker is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press' Health and Science Department.

    The British agency's research said the protection a vaccine booster shot gives against symptomatic omicron infection appears to lessen after about 10 weeks. Protection against hospitalization and severe disease is likely to last longer, it said.

    The announcement came after two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, found patients with omicron were 20 to 68 percent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with Delta.

    Information from South Africa, where Omicron was discovered, has also suggested omicron might be less severe there. Salim Abdool Karim is an infectious disease expert in South Africa. He recently said that the rate of admissions to hospitals was far lower for Omicron than it was for Delta.

    "Our overall admission rate is in the region of around 2% to 4% compared to previously, where it was closer to 20%," he said. Karim added that, although there are a large number of cases, fewer are being admitted to the hospital.

    I'm Anna Matteo.

    Laura Ungar and Mike Stobbe reported this story for the Associated Press. Caty Weaver was the editor for VOA Learning English.

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    Words in This Story

    data -n. facts about something that can be used in calculating, reasoning, or planning

    ray -n. a beam of radiant energy (such as light) of small cross section

    mild –adj. moderate in action or effect

    relative –adj. compared to someone or something else or to each other : seeming to be something when compared with others

    booster -n. a substance or dose used to renew or increase the effect of a drug or immunizing agent: such as

    symptomatic –adj. showing that a particular disease is present : relating to or showing symptoms of a disease

    region –n. a part of a country, of the world, that is different or separate from other parts in some way

    previously –adv. existing or happening before the present time