LONDON – Preliminary data suggests that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are 50% to 70% less likely to be hospitalized than those with the delta strain, Britain’s public health agency announced Thursday in a finding that one researcher called “a small ray of sunlight.”
The findings from the U.K. Health Security Agency add to emerging evidence that omicron produces milder illness than other variants. But scientists caution that any reductions in severity must be weighed against the fact that omicron spreads much faster than delta and is better at evading vaccines.
Based on cases in the U.K., a person with omicron is estimated to be 31% to 45% less likely to go to a hospital emergency department compared to someone with delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital,” the agency said.
It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of Dec. 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.
Countries around the world are looking closely at Britain, where omicron is now dominant and where COVID-19 cases have surged by more than 50% in a week.
Experts not involved with the analysis called it encouraging.
“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 than delta also align with lab data suggesting omicron does not grow as well in cells derived from lungs, Li said.
The findings add to similar data from South Africa, added Dr. Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
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