70 Percent of Hospitalized Omicron Patients Have This in Common
Here's the latest data from South Africa on the concerning COVID variant.
Now spreading in more than 40 countries, the Omicron variant has quickly made its way around the world. This new version of the virus has caused concern among virus experts for a number of reasons. Its ability to spread so fast has many worried that Omicron will dominate the globe in the same way that Delta did, potentially even outcompeting that variant. And a large number of mutations also has experts nervous that the Omicron variant will bypass much of the protection afforded by existing vaccines. But while it will take weeks to make any definitive determinations on the latest COVID variant, researchers are already comparing data among hospitalized Omicron patients to find commonalities.
A new study from doctors at the Steve Biko/Tshwane District Hospital Complex in Pretoria, South Africa, analyzed the patient profile of 42 COVID patients on Dec. 2, a time during which the Omicron variant has been surging in the country. According to the study, 70 percent of these patients did not need supplemental oxygen, which is often required in severe COVID cases.
"These patients are saturating well on room air and do not present with any respiratory symptoms. These are the patients that we would call 'incidental COVID admissions,' having had another medical or surgical reason for admission," the researchers stated in their report. This means that most of the infected patients were admitted to the hospital for other reasons and have no significant COVID symptoms, according to The New York Times.
Based on the study's findings, eight of the nine patients with a diagnosis of COVID pneumonia were unvaccinated. "Only a single patient on oxygen was fully vaccinated, but the reason for the oxygen was Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease [COPD]," the researchers explained.
The researchers also noted that this was inconsistent with other waves of the pandemic, indicating that the Omicron variant might be producing primarily mild disease. According to the report, the number of patients in high care needing supplemental oxygen was "noticeably higher" in former COVID waves.
Meanwhile, scientists are warning against make widespread assumptions on the new variant based on small sets of data. White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, recently discussed the Omicron variant in a Dec. 5 interview on CNN's State of the Union and said that while recent reports from South Africa have been "a bit encouraging" regarding the severity of Omicron cases, it's too soon to know for certain.
"Thus far—though it's too early to really make any definitive statements about it—it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it," he told CNN's Jake Tapper. "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."
And Fareed Abdullah, MD, head researcher for the study and the director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis Research at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMA), confirmed to The New York Times that the study's findings were preliminary and only sampled a small group of patients.
But South Africa is not the only country to report a majority of mild cases with the Omicron variant. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) released data on Dec. 2 stating that all of the 70 confirmed Omicron cases by European Union and European Economic Area countries at the time of the report were either asymptomatic or mild. "To date, there have been no severe cases and no deaths reported among these cases," the ECDC stated.
The CDC has confirmed similar findings for the U.S., particularly in terms of those fully vaccinated. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said during a Dec. 3 interview on ABC's Good Morning America that cases in the country are showing that many vaccinated people infected with the Omicron variant are only experiencing mild disease.
"It would not be shocking if [the variant is less severe], but I'm not sure we can conclude that yet," Emily S. Gurley, PhD, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times.