Many questions about the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant remain unanswered, but some evidence is emerging to suggest that it might not present the same way as other strains of the disease.
Patients with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 look very different than those infected with previous variants like Delta, says the chair of South Africa’s medical association.
“It’s totally different from the Delta,” Dr. Angelique Coetzee told Global News on Tuesday. She said that these patients aren’t displaying the same loss of taste and smell, need for supplemental oxygen or elevated pulse rate that doctors noted with Delta patients.
“It’s very much like a cold or flu type of symptoms,” she said, adding that patients are reporting headaches and body aches, and a slight sore throat.
“They don’t have a severe cough and they don’t have a running or blocked nose as you would see with an upper respiratory tract infection,” she said.
Overall, patients appear to be less sick than those in previous waves of COVID-19, Coetzee said, although generally speaking, severe illness seems to lag a few weeks behind infections, and the data is very new.
This fits with the findings of a very small study released Dec. 4 looking at patients at a hospital located in Gauteng Province in South Africa, the epicentre of an Omicron outbreak, who tested positive for the new variant. Researchers looked at just 42 patients admitted over two weeks, Nov. 14-29, 2021.
These patients tended to be younger than in previous waves, with more than 80 per cent of them under the age of 50.
Most of these patients didn’t need oxygen, the researchers wrote — in contrast to previous waves at that hospital. And many of them originally went to the hospital for other reasons, and then tested positive for COVID-19 later.
“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN on Sunday. “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.”
Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, agrees.
“People have interpreted that as saying Omicron only causes mild disease. But that is not what was said,” he said. “What was said was: what we have noticed in this young patient population is milder disease so far.”
Medical experts urge caution as Omicron variant spreads
The problem is, the early studies are on small groups, and those groups tended to be young people — who tend to have less severe COVID-19 than older age groups — and they might have had some immunity from previous COVID-19 infection, said Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
Because of this, Vinh said, it’s really hard to extrapolate the findings to other populations.
“What goes on in Gauteng, stays in Gauteng, if you will,” he said. “We all have different demographics, we all have different ethnicities within our regions, and we have a different age pyramid. So what happens in Montreal or Toronto may not necessarily reflect the demographics or age distribution of Gauteng.”
And while this early study might suggest that Omicron causes less severe disease, he said, hospitalizations in Gauteng province have since jumped up, suggesting that the variant is still having a negative effect on the population, as Omicron now accounts for a major percentage of COVID-19 cases there.
Even if Omicron turns out to cause less severe illness than other strains, if it’s more transmissible, it’s still dangerous, Kindrachuk said.
“You can have some drop in virulence, but if that’s countered by an increase in transmissibility, you can still end up with very similar numbers of people requiring hospitalisation or ICU capacity just because of the enhanced transmissibility,” he said.
“I think certainly the data coming out of Europe, probably over the next couple of weeks, is going to be really telling,” Kindrachuk said. He will be watching for what happens when Omicron hits older populations, vaccinated people and people with no history of prior infection, for clues on how the virus might behave in Canada.
Right now though, Vinh said, Canada shouldn’t be focusing on Omicron, when our cases are still rising with older variants.
“The fire in front of us is still Delta. That is the predominant strain. And we shouldn’t be thinking too far ahead about Omicron when we haven’t even addressed Delta,” he said.
There’s no “secret weapon” that governments have been saving for a threat like Omicron, he said, and measures that help fight Delta will fight Omicron too.
“There’s both protection and transmission. Protection from disease is through vaccination. Mitigating transmission is through physical measures like masks for airborne transmission, good ventilation, distancing, avoiding congregations. That really is that simple.”
— with files from the Associated Press
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