Omicron Spreads Faster, But Is Less Severe Than Other Variants, Study Says

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Early observations of human cells in a lab dish reveal that the omicron variation of SARS-CoV-2 is less effective at entering the lungs and propagating from cell to cell than other versions of the coronavirus, as reported by Live Science.

This could explain why preliminary data from South Africa and England suggests the strain produces less severe disease. Despite the fact that omicron does not easily enter lung cells, a new study published on the preprint database bioRxiv on Tuesday (Dec. 21) demonstrated that the variation avoids most of the antibodies produced by fully vaccinated people.

In a statement, senior author Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases, said that a “booster” dose of the Pfizer vaccine significantly increased the neutralisation power of vaccinated people’s antibodies, “though we’d still expect a waning in immunity to occur over time.”

The findings have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, but they suggest that “omicron’s mutations present the virus with a double-edged sword: it’s gotten better at evading the immune system, but it might have lost some of its ability to cause severe disease,” according to Gupta. However, scientists must prove that the findings from laboratory tests reflect what happens in human patients, and that omicron mutations affect the severity of illness.

Illustration of the spike in the COVID-19, the delta variant, and the omicron variant.
A visualization of mutations (blue, red, and white) that distinguish the Omicron spike protein from those of the original SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coronavirus and the Delta variant. (Credit: Mia Rosenfeld and Fiona Kearns/Amaro Lab/University Of California, San Diego)

Omicron infections may be less severe on average, according to data from South Africa, England, and other nations, but background levels of immunity from natural infection and vaccination make these findings difficult to interpret, according to NPR.

In a separate story, Aljazeera wrote that an Imperial College London study has backed up what South African medics have been saying since the news surfaced in November: that being hospitalized with an Omicron infection is considerably less likely than being hospitalized with a Delta infection.

Between December 1 and 14, 325,000 people in England tested positive for COVID-19 using a PCR test — 56,000 instances of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta. It was discovered that when Omicron was compared to Delta, the risk of needing any hospital treatment was reduced by 20-25 percent, but the necessity for an overnight hospital stay was reduced by 40-45 percent. The risk of hospitalisation was roughly 11 percent lower for participants in the trial who had not received the vaccine or had previously been infected with Omicron versus Delta.

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