The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa about three weeks ago. It is known to feature more than thirty mutations to the spike protein, which helps it achieve higher transmissibility rates than other variants. But the researchers did note that Omicron-driven infections in the lungs appear to be less severe compared to the original virus strain.
“It is important to note that the severity of disease in humans is not determined only by virus replication but also by the host immune response to the infection,” Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, who worked on the study that is under peer review, said in a press statement.
“It is also noted that, by infecting many more people, a very infectious virus may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less pathogenic,” Chi-wai said in the statement. “Therefore, taken together with our recent studies showing that the omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, the overall threat from Omicron variant is likely to be very significant.”
Likely Circulating in Every Country
The threat posed by the Omicron is being taken seriously by the World Health Organization, which earlier this week warned that the variant is spreading faster than any previous coronavirus strain and is likely already circulating in every country across the world. The agency also cautioned against treating the variant as a milder strain compared to Delta—once again asserting that the virus can still cause severe and potentially deadly illness.
“We know that people infected with omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, from asymptomatic infection to mild disease, all the way to severe disease to death,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said during a question-and-answer session on Wednesday.
“If a (health care) system is overburdened, then people will die,” Kerkohve said. “We have to be really careful that there isn’t a narrative out there that it’s just a mild disease.”
Omicron to Become Dominant
Meanwhile, While House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday acknowledged that Omicron will soon likely become the dominant coronavirus variant circulating in the United States.
“It is the most transmissible virus of COVID that we had to deal with those far,” Fauci told a virtual U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation audience. “It will soon become dominant here. That’s one thing we know.”
“When you look at the pace of the infections now, things will get worse as we go into the depth of the winter,” he added. “And with Omicron breathing down our back, things could get really bad—particularly for the unvaccinated.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.