Well-Being

South African researchers say omicron reinfects people at 3 times the rate of other variants

The Associated Press/Shiraaz Mohamed

Story at a glance

  • The research was conducted using data collected in South Africa from nearly 2.8 million people infected with the virus between March 2020 and Nov. 27, 2021.
  • Researchers said 35,670 of those cases were suspected reinfections.
  • Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said Thursday she believes vaccines will provide protection against the strain.

The omicron coronavirus variant appears to carry a higher risk of COVID-19 reinfection than previous strains of the virus, according to a study that has yet to be peer-reviewed. 

The study posted to the preprint server medRxiv found the variant is reinfecting people at three times the rate of past strains such as beta and delta, suggesting the variant is “associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.” 

The research was conducted using data collected in South Africa from nearly 2.8 million people infected with the virus between March 2020 and Nov. 27, 2021. Researchers said 35,670 of those cases were suspected reinfections. 

“We do not have information about the vaccination status of individuals in our data set and therefore cannot make any assessment of whether Omicron also evades vaccine-derived immunity,” Juliet Pulliam, co-author of the study and director of the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, said in a tweet


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The highly mutated variant was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has fueled a surge of new infections in South Africa, where it was first discovered. More than 8,000 new cases were reported Wednesday, up from about 4,000 the day prior, and health officials Thursday say they expect the numbers to rise exponentially. 

While much is still unknown about omicron, researchers are scrambling to determine the variant’s effect on severity of illness, transmissibility and whether vaccines currently on the market provide adequate protection. 

Anne von Gottberg, microbiologist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said Thursday she believes vaccines will provide protection against the strain. 

“We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease, because we’ve seen this decrease in protection using vaccines with the other variants, but vaccines have always held up to prevent severe disease and admission into hospitals and death,” she said

The variant has been identified in more than 20 countries including in the U.S. 


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