More Studies Suggest Omicron Causes Milder Symptoms, Says Top WHO Official

A top World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Tuesday that evidence is growing that shows the Omicron variant of the CCP virus is less severe compared to previous variants due to the disease affecting the upper respiratory tract.

“We are seeing more and more studies pointing out that Omicron is infecting the upper part of the body. Unlike other ones, the lungs, who would be causing severe pneumonia,” WHO Incident Manager Abdi Mahamud said during a news conference in Geneva.

Mahamud’s remark on the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus variant having a reduced risk of severe disease and death also echoes other data, including a report by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) that said most of the hospitalized patients admitted with COVID-19 did not need oxygen, a contrast to earlier in the pandemic.

Though Mahamud hailed the growing evidence as possibly “good news”—at the same time, he also sounded a note of caution because the discovery requires more studies to prove the new data.

According to data released by the SAMRC, while COVID-19 cases surged to all-time records in South Africa, the in-hospital rate of deaths linked to the disease was 6.6 percent in the previous two weeks before the report was published in early December, versus 17 percent in the year-and-a-half preceding that time period.

However, Mahamud called South Africa an “outlier” since it has a young population, among other factors—noting that health officials shouldn’t template the country for how the variant will fare as it continues to spread in other places.

He also added that due to Omicron’s high transmissibility, it may be possible for the strain to become dominant within “a matter of weeks” in many places, noting that a “remarkable increase” in cases was reported in the United States, but the numbers have fluctuated.

“The numbers have been fluctuated because of the variability of the data,” Mahamud said. “Just to give you an example—in the United States they reported initially 70 percent, when all the data came back, it went to 57 percent, so there will be a fluctuation with the Christmas backlog, with the New Year, I think we will have a better idea of the proportion in the coming days.”

While evidence has emerged previously that Omicron appears to be able to slip past antibodies bestowed by COVID-19 vaccines, Mahamud said new studies suggest the shot still provides some protection by eliciting a second pillar of the immune response from T-cells.

T-cells are a type of white blood cell that is an essential part of the adaptive immune system. They work to eliminate infected cells and also play a vital role in modulating the severity of the CCP virus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, in individuals.

“We have a good number of studies coming up, proving again what we had from South Africa that the vaccine still protects you against hospitalization and severe disease and death and that’s what vaccines were designed [for], Mahamud said.

Asked about whether an Omicron-specific vaccine was needed, he said it was too early to say but noted the decision required global coordination and should not be left to the commercial sector to decide alone.

Reuters contributed to this report.