Why the good news about the Omicron variant’s reduced severity may be a mirage

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Flight crew from China lands in U.S.

Flight crew from China lands in U.S. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a growing, caveat-filled consensus among public health experts that the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus is both more contagious and less severe than other COVID-19 strains. The evidence for greater transmissibility is more persuasive at this point than reduced severity, but “thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on CNN this weekend.

Given the on-the-ground reports from the Omicron epicenter, Tshwane in South Africa, “I think the signs are actually extremely optimistic,” Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Dr. David Dowdy tells The New York Times. Cases are soaring, most of them from the Omicron strain, but deaths are not rising.

Dr. Fareed Abdullah at the South African Medical Research Council told the Times on Monday that walking into the COVID-19 ward of the Tshwane District Hospital Complex is a very different experience than in previous waves, due to the lack of ventilator beeps and humming. “Out of 17 patients, four were on oxygen,” he said. However, Abdullah wrote in a report over the weekend, “this may be due to the usual lag between cases and deaths.”

“Severe COVID illness often takes a week or more to develop, and the world has been aware of Omicron for less than two weeks,” David Leonhardt explains at the Times. Also, “the initial studies of Omicron patients have also come disproportionately from South Africa, where the population skews young and many people were previously infected with Delta. Both groups are unlikely to get very sick.”

If the Omicron variant proves to be more contagious, “scientists are anxiously watching” whether it overthrows “the world-dominating” Delta strain in the U.S. and globally, The Associated Press reports. And if it turns out to be less severe, “it would be a great thing if, in fact, Omicron crowded out Delta,” Dr. Warner Greene at San Francisco’s Gladstone Institutes tells USA Today. “If Omicron was a less pathogenic virus, that would be very good news for the human race.”

Maybe, Leonhardt writes. “One worrisome postscript is that even seemingly mild COVID infections can prove deadly for vulnerable people, like the elderly. The flu kills large numbers of elderly people for the same reason.” And any reduction in severity could be canceled out by the spike in cases it produces, for a net increase in hospitalizations and deaths, World Health Organization COVID expert Dr. Maria van Kerkhove told CBS News on Sunday.

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