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Omicron May Be Less Sickening Than Other Coronavirus Variants

FILE - A healthcare worker administers the Pfizer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a man, amidst the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 9, 2021.

The World Health Organization says data from South Africa indicate the omicron variant may result in less sickening illness than other coronavirus variants.

The World Health Organization says new cases of COVID-19 in Africa have surged by 93 percent this past week, compared to the previous week. That brings the number of reported cases on the continent to more than 8.8 million, including more than 220,000 deaths. It is not known how many of those new cases and deaths are due to the omicron variant.

What is known, however, is omicron has spread to about 60 countries, 10 of them in Africa. The WHO says almost half of the nearly 1,000 omicron cases reported globally are in Africa, with the heaviest burden borne by South Africa.

Richard Mihigo is the coordinator for immunization and vaccines development in the WHO’s regional office for Africa. He says it is encouraging to note few of the many people infected with omicron in South Africa have had to be hospitalized. He notes this suggests the new variant may cause less severe illness.

“Data which looked at hospitalization across the country between 14 November and 4 December found that ICU occupancy was only 6.3 percent—which is very low compared with the same period when South Africa was facing the peak, which was linked at that time to delta variant, and I am talking about July this year," Mihigo said.

Mihigo says that is a preliminary analysis. He figures it will take at least another two to three weeks to determine omicron’s full effects.

He says researchers are working around the clock to see whether the new coronavirus variant is more contagious, more debilitating, and more resistant to current vaccines and treatments than other variants.

“There is an assumption that the current vaccines may not protect people against omicron," Mihigo said. "But so far, there is no conclusive evidence that vaccines are ineffective against this new variant. Vaccines have protected people, as we know from severe disease and hospitalization due to the other variants of concern, and there has been no need to modify these vaccines.”

Indeed, Pfizer and BioNTech say preliminary data indicate that a booster or a third shot of their coronavirus vaccine is effective against the new variant. The Biopharmaceutical company says it is working on an omicron-specific vaccine, which it hopes will be developed in the next three months.

In the meantime, the WHO says it continues to support countries to improve genomic surveillance to track the virus and other variants of concern.