People who contract the Omicron variant during this current wave of COVID-19 infections are much less likely to be hospitalized than they are if they contract other strains of the virus, according to a new study from South Africa.
What are the details?
The study, released Wednesday by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, comes as countries around the globe grapple with how to handle the new strain, which appears to be more resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines.
In the study, researchers compared Omicron infections with Delta and other variant infections from October to November and discovered that Omicron infections resulted in a considerable 80% decreased chance of hospitalization.
"When compared to non-[Omicron] infections, we found that [Omicron] infections had an 80% lower odds of being admitted to the hospital," South African researchers concluded.
Though the researchers did note that for patients admitted to the hospital in that period, those infected with Omicron had an equal chance of developing a severe illness compared to those with other variants.
But when compared to Delta infections starting in April — when that strain dominated much of the world — Omicron infections were associated with a 70% lower odds of severe disease, even though the new strain appears to produce a higher viral load in infected patients.
"Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants," said Professor Cheryl Cohen, one of the study's authors. It should be noted that the study is newly released and has yet to be peer-reviewed.
Cohen added that research was reinforced by medical data from the country that has shown significantly lower hospitalization and death figures in this latest wave of COVID-19 infections, during which Omicron has become the obviously dominant strain.
But Cohen was careful to note that the situation may be different for other countries in comparison to South Africa, where under 50% of the population is vaccinated but many have experienced prior infection.
"What is unclear is whether the picture will be similar in countries where there are high levels of vaccination but very low levels of previous infection," she said during a media briefing, according to Reuters.
Nevertheless, the new data, if proven accurate, is positive news and could perhaps foreshadow a turning point in the pandemic, as some scientists have predicted.
Last month, as mass hysteria broke out regarding the Omicron variant, Israeli immunologist Zvika Granot argued that the new variant may be "the light at the end of the tunnel," since it appeared to be "highly infectious but maybe not as aggressive."
"When you look at the future and try to envision how this will end one day, it's most likely not going to be because we got a fantastic vaccine," Granot said. "It just doesn't work this way and we have a lot of experience with viruses like the flu."
"The way that it will end, at least in my view, is when we encounter this new variant that is highly infectious but is not very aggressive, meaning that a lot of people will get infected but none of them will develop serious symptoms. And in a sense that will be the way the population will really gain herd immunity, and then the coronavirus will just fade away," he argued.