South African study finds omicron may be significantly less severe

A new South African study finds that omicron could be significantly less severe than previous strains of the novel coronavirus. 

The study found that people with omicron infections had an 80 percent lower chance of being hospitalized, compared to other COVID-19 cases. 

The researchers cautioned, though, that it is unclear to what extent omicron is intrinsically less severe than earlier strains, and to what extent the drop is due to more immunity in the population, from both prior infection and vaccination, than there was in earlier waves. 

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“It is difficult to disentangle the relative contribution of high levels of previous population immunity versus intrinsic lower virulence to the observed lower disease severity,” the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, states. 

Still, the findings could provide some good news. 

“New pre-print from South Africa suggests that, at least among those vaccinated and/or previously infected, Omicron is much less severe than Delta,” tweeted Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Will that hold true in the US with an older population? We'll find out in the coming weeks.”

The South African study adds to earlier indications that omicron could be less severe, though researchers are still gathering data. 

"It's too early to be able to determine the precise severity of disease but inklings that we are getting, and we must remember these are still in the form of anecdotal ... but it appears that with the cases that are seen, we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease," Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci Romney tests positive for coronavirus Kid Rock says he won't show up at any of his tour stops with a vaccine mandate Overnight Health Care — ObamaCare gets record numbers MORE said earlier this month

"In fact, it might be — and I underscore might be — less severe as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases," Fauci added.

Still, experts caution that even with a less severe variant, there can still be a major risk to the health care system overall. Omicron is extremely transmissible, meaning that even if only a very small percentage of cases are hospitalized, that can still be a large number given a potentially massive number of total cases.