Omicron variant better at evading COVID vaccines, a milder infection

Johannesburg: The Omicron variant appears to cause less harsh disease than past versions of the coronavirus, and the Pfizer vaccine seems to offer less defence against infection from it, according to an examination of data from South Africa, where the new variant is driving a surge in case numbers.

While the findings released on Tuesday, Johannesburg time, are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed – the gold standard in scientific research – they line up with other early data about Omicron’s behaviour, including that it seems to be more easily transmitted.

A researcher prepares to ordern COVID-19 samples in South Africa this month.Credit:AP

A two-measure Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination appeared to provide just 33 per cent protection against infection during South Africa’s current Omicron wave, but 70 per cent protection against hospitalisation, according to the examination conducted by Discovery Health, the country’s largest private health insurer, and the South African Medical Research Council.

The data was gathered from November 15 to December 7, during which time Omicron was first spotted by scientists in South Africa and Botswana, and may change as time passes. Experts now say that Omicron accounts for more than 90 per cent of all new infections in South Africa, according to Discovery’s chief executive Dr Ryan Noach.

Researchers around the world are rushing to figure out what Omicron will average for the coronavirus pandemic now well into its second year. More information came on Tuesday from Pfizer, which announced that its experimental pill to treat COVID-19 – separate from it its vaccine – appears effective against the new variant.

The company also said complete results of its 2250-person study confirmed the pill’s promising early results against the virus: The drug reduced combined hospitalisations and deaths by about 89 per cent among high-risk adults when taken shortly after initial virus symptoms. Separate laboratory testing shows the drug retains its potency against the Omicron variant.

Residents listen to Gauteng Province Premier David Makhura in Lawley, South Africa, during a vaccination excursion.Credit:AP

In the weeks since Omicron was detected, South Africa has experienced rapid spread of the virus – concentrated in its most populous province, Gauteng. The seven-day rolling average of daily new situations in the country rose over the past two weeks from 8.07 new situations per 100,000 people on November 29 to 34.37 new situations per 100,000 people on December 13, according to Johns Hopkins University. The death rate hasn’t increased during that same period.

“The Omicron-pushed fourth wave has a considerably steeper trajectory of new infections relative to prior groups. National data show an exponential increase in both new infections and test positivity rates during the first three weeks of this wave, suggesting a highly transmissible variant with rapid community spread of infection,” Noach said.

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