Good news at last! Omicron is causing up to a THIRD fewer hospitalisations than Delta and two Pfizer jabs still slash death risk of severe disease by 70%, major real-world South African study finds
- Officials who analysed 78,000 Omicron cases in the past month estimated that Omicron significantly milder
- Omicron causing 38 admissions per 1,000 cases compared to Delta’s 101 per 1,000, first real-world study said
- Study also found two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine still provides 70 per cent protection against hospital admission
Omicron is causing milder disease than Delta in patients in the epicentre of the new Covid variant, the first major real-world study in South Africa confirmed today.
Officials who analysed 78,000 Omicron cases in the past month estimated the risk of hospitalisation was a fifth lower than with Delta and 29 per cent lower than the original virus.
As a crude rate, Omicron is currently leading to a third fewer hospital admissions than Delta did during its entire wave — 38 admissions per 1,000 Omicron cases compared to 101 per 1,000 for Delta.
The findings lend weight to the theory that the ultra-infectious variant is weaker than previous strains, something which doctors on the ground in South Africa have been claiming for weeks.
But the reduction in severity is probably not solely down to Omicron being intrinsically milder, according to the South African Medical Research Council which led the analysis.
Around 70 per cent of South Africans have recovered from Covid already and 23 per cent are double-vaccinated, which has created high levels of immunity.
The finding will raise hopes that the UK’s Omicron wave will be less severe than previous peaks, despite having an older and denser population. Unlike South Africa, the UK is rolling out booster jabs on a mass scale.
The study also found two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine still provide 70 per cent protection against hospital admission or death from Omicron, compared to 93 per cent for Delta.
While this is more protection than many scientists initially feared, it still leaves 30 per cent of people vulnerable to severe Omicron disease, four times as many as Delta. Waning immunity from two Pfizer doses was found to offer just 33 per cent protection against Omicron infection, explaining why the country has seen a meteoric rise in case numbers.
Despite the optimism, No10 was warned today by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty there will be a a ‘significant increase in hospitalisations’ from Omicron in the coming weeks. UK experts are concerned that different demographics in Britain make the country more susceptible to high infection numbers and hospital pressure.
Officials who looked at 78,000 Omicron cases in the past month found t he risk of hospitalisation was a fifth lower than with Delta (in green) and 29 per cent lower than the original virus (dark blue). Omicron is shown in brown and the original South African ‘Beta’ variant in light blue. Children appeared to have a 20 per cent higher risk of hospital admission with complications during the new wave than the initial outbreak, despite the numbers still being tiny
As a crude rate, Omicron is currently causing a third fewer hospital admissions than Delta did during its entire wave — 38 admissions per 1,000 Omicron cases, compared to 101 per 1,000 for Delta
The study also found that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine still provides 70 per cent protection against hospital admission or death from Omicron, compared to 93 per cent for Delta
Waning immunity from two Pfizer doses was found to offer just 33 per cent protection against Omicron infection, explaining why the country has seen a meteoric rise in case numbers
Against Delta, two Pfizer jabs initially offer more than 80 per cent protection against symptomatic infection before falling to around 60 per cent within six months.
Today’s study, co-run by private health insurance company Discovery Health, was based on more than 211,000 positive Covid test results from November 15 to December 7, 78,000 of which were attributed to Omicron.
Overall, four in 10 of those who tested positive had received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The Omicron Covid variant is now dominant in London, public health chiefs warned today, barely two weeks after it was first detected in the country.
Professor Kevin Fenton, the capital’s director of public health, said early data suggested it was already behind one in every two of the city’s infections.
Nationally, it is behind one in every five cases but is expected to make up half before the New Year — a month after arriving on British shores. For comparison, it took Delta almost two months to take over from existing strains.
Covid hospitalisations in the capital have surged 50 per cent in a fortnight, with admissions up from 91 to 140 on average by December 11, the latest available. Deaths are flat, but they are a lagging indicator because of the time taken for someone who catches the virus to get seriously unwell.
The London mayor’s office warned today it was ‘better to act now’ than wait before imposing additional measures, as Labour is expected to vote through Covid passports. They also welcomed the ramped up booster drive.
It is a chilling reminder of last winter, when the capital was the first place to be effectively locked down in England because of runaway infections and hospitalisations.
Boris Johnson yesterday refused three times to rule out another lockdown, after bringing back restrictions including face masks in public places, work from home guidance and new rules for vaccinated contacts of Covid cases in order to beat the variant. He has also ramped up the booster drive opening it to all over-18s.
The 70 per cent protection from severe disease figure still puts two doses well above the World Health Organization’s efficacy threshold of 50 per cent.
But the researchers said that efficacy was reduced further in older age groups, falling to just 59 per cent in the 70 to 79 bracket, for example.
That could be because older people were vaccinated first in the initial rollout and there has been more time for immunity to wane than in younger people.
Protection against admission was consistent across a range of chronic illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and other cardiovascular diseases, the study said.
Children appeared to have a 20 per cent higher risk of hospital admission with complications during the fourth wave than during the first, despite the numbers still being tiny.
‘This is early data and requires careful follow up,’ said Shirley Collie, chief health analytics actuary at Discovery Health.
She cautioned that children were still 51 per cent less likely to test positive during the Omicron wave and the risk for them remains low.
As a crude rate, Omicron is currently causing a third fewer hospital admissions than Delta did — 38 admissions per 1,000 Omicron cases, compared to 101 per 1,000 for Delta.
However, South Africa is only a month into its Omicron outbreak and Covid admissions are steadily rising, with 422 admitted yesterday, a rise of 141 per cent compared to last week.
A total of 6,198 people are being treated for the virus now compared to the 5,562 who were in hospital on Sunday — the biggest single-day rise since the new variant took off.
Yet, despite the increasing case and hospital numbers, there were just 11 deaths attributed to Covid in the last 24 hours, up only marginally on last week.
Doctors in South Africa’s Omicron ground zero maintain that Omicron patients are coming in with milder illness and being discharged quicker.
Official figures suggest the number of Covid hospital patients with severe illness is a third of the level at the same point in the country’s Delta wave.
The South African doctor who first raised the alarm about Omicron last month endorsed the study today, telling MPs that it confirmed what doctors were seeing on the ground.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that ‘we don’t have all the answers’ but the clinical picture so far is that people are mostly suffering mild illness from Omicron.
Dr Coetzee said some people are getting breakthrough infections if they are vaccinated or if they have had Covid before, but cases seemed to be milder, especially for the vaccinated.
‘The breakthrough infections we are seeing are mild… (and) the symptoms we are seeing in (vaccinated) people are less severe or intense than in the unvaccinated,’ she said.
‘On a hospital level… between 88 per cent to 90 per cent (of people) are unvaccinated.’
She said that in hospitals it is hard to differentiate between those patients with the Delta variant and those with Omicron, but that intensive care units ‘are still not overwhelmed’.
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said the analysis covers just three weeks of data and ‘it is important to avoid inferring too much right now from any national scenario’.
Pfizer claims its at-home Covid pill STILL beats Omicron and cuts risk of dying/hospitalisation by up to 89%
Pfizer’s Covid pill slashes the risk of hospitalisation and death by up to 90 per cent and will work against Omicron, the vaccine maker claimed today.
A study of more than 2,200 at-risk adults found the drug, called Paxlovid, reduced the risk of severe outcomes by 89 per cent.
And a separate trial of the pill, which the UK has already ordered 250,000 doses of, on healthy unvaccinated adults found taking it within a few days of suffering Covid symptoms cuts the chance of being hospitalised by 70 per cent, Pfizer said.
Meanwhile, laboratory tests suggest Paxlovid will still offer a ‘robust’ response against the Omicron variant, which is due to become dominant in the UK tomorrow.
Pfizer’s boss Dr Albert Bourla said the emergence of Omicron has ‘exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus’ and the pill could be a ‘critical tool to help quell the pandemic’.
The UK’s medicines regulator has so far approved one at-home pill in the fight against Covid. But molnupiravir, made by US-based Merck and Ridgeback, will only be given to older and at-risk people within 48 hours of catching the virus as part of a pilot that is expected to launch by the end of the year.
He added: ‘For example, the narrative around South Africa is that Omicron may be much milder, whereas reports out of Denmark broadly suggests the opposite.
‘This reflects the uncertainty of new data. Within that, factors include the different levels of exposure to Covid-19 and previous infection, levels of vaccination and potential waning of immunity, and also age ranges infected thus far.
‘We know that Covid-19 is very adept at moving from younger to older populations within a few weeks.
‘Is Omicron milder or more severe than Delta? Time will tell. The world’s finest scientists, including many in the global south such as in South Africa, will find out.
‘For now, national-level decision-makers have to consider that discretion is the better part of valour.’
Meanwhile, Professor Chris Whitty has warned ministers to brace for a ‘significant increase in hospitalisations’ from Omicron, as Downing Street insisted no further coronavirus restrictions are being planned.
England’s chief medical officer also told a virtual Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that it is ‘too early to say how severe’ the strain is after early suggestions from South Africa that it could be relatively mild.
Boris Johnson also warned his ministers that he believes a ‘huge spike’ of cases of the variant will hit the nation, as he pressures Tory rebels to back his new Plan B restrictions during a Commons vote.
Downing Street did not reject a suggestion that new Omicron cases could hit a million per day next week based on a ‘valid’ estimate from the UK Health Security Agency that daily infections are currently around 200,000.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab insisted Plan B restrictions including mandatory mask=wearing and the use of Covid health certificates for large venues will be sufficient over Christmas, meaning families can ‘spend it with loved ones’.
But the downbeat assessment from Prof Whitty delivered to the first Cabinet meeting not to take place in person for months will raise concerns that additional measures may be needed in the new year.
He told ministers he can not yet determine whether cases are plateauing in South Africa, where the strain was first identified, and said there is ‘no reliable evidence’ from the nation’s scientists of a peak in case rates.
‘He added that it remained too early to say how severe the Omicron variant was but that we can expect a significant increase in hospitalisations as cases increase,’ according to No 10’s account of the meeting.
Earlier, South African Medical Association chairwoman Dr Angelique Coetzee told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that most cases of Omicron have been mild.
Downing Street gave its backing to the UK Health Security Agency estimate that there could already be around 200,000 cases of the rapidly-spreading strain in circulation.
‘We think it is a valid figure which is recognising it is an estimate and models have wide ranges,’ the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
‘It does provide an understanding of how quickly Omicron is transmitting, we expect it to become the dominant variant in London today.’
The spokesman did not reject a suggestion that by the middle of next week there could be a million Omicron infections a day, instead saying: ‘Like I say, cases are increasing significantly.’
However, despite the figures, he insisted there are ‘no plans’ to move beyond Plan B restrictions, which are expected to be backed in Tuesday’s Commons vote with Labour’s support.
‘We need to learn more about this variant on things like severity before we decide what – if any – action is required in the future,’ he added.
Downing Street also insisted there is significant testing capacity after it emerged there are no available slots for PCR tests at walk-in or drive-through sites in some parts of England for people with coronavirus symptoms.
The spokesman insisted ministers are working with Royal Mail and Amazon to expand the number of delivery slots as lateral flow tests became unavailable to be ordered through the Government website for the second day running.
Ministers are pinning their hopes on Plan B and an acceleration of the booster programme to offer all adults in England a third vaccine dose by the end of December to contain Omicron.
Mr Raab told Times Radio that the target is ‘demanding’, but added that it will allow the nation to ‘go into this Christmas with the ability to spend it with loved ones in a way that was impossible last year’.
But he did not rule out further measures being considered for Christmas or New Year, saying: ‘These issues are always discussed but we have got Plan B, that’s what we think is required over the Christmas period.’
Pressed if Christmas will be safe, Mr Raab replied: ‘Yes, I think it is. I want to give that reassurance. I think people can look forward to spending Christmas with loved ones in a way that we couldn’t last year.’
The assurance came as more than 70 backbench Tories threatened to defy the whips and oppose the Government’s Plan B for England, in what would be the biggest rebellion against the Prime Minister since he entered No 10.
Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general Tony Danker said warnings from the Government are creating a ‘chilling effect’ on many sectors of the economy.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It seems to us that, whilst we have measures to keep the economy open, we have messages that have ended up closing much of it down.
‘People should be worried enough to go and get a booster urgently, but not so worried to stop going to shops, restaurants or airports.
‘That’s what’s not working, you have a double whammy for businesses in those sectors, hospitality, retail, leisure or travel, where demand is collapsing and there’s no support to recover.’
NHS England said it experienced its busiest Monday for vaccinations since the rollout began, with 418,000 booster jabs delivered.
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