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Studies: Omicron less severe as it mostly avoids attacking lungs

Series of experiments on mice, hamsters all reach conclusion that new coronavirus strain mainly manifests in upper airway, causing fewer breathing problems

A nurse watches over a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the an intensive care unit at the la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
A nurse watches over a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator in the an intensive care unit at the la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

A series of recently published studies found the Omicron variant may be less severe than other coronavirus strains because of the way it attacks the lungs, according to Friday reports.

Studies on mice and hamsters found that Omicron produced less damaging infections to the lungs, and instead was limited largely to the nose, throat, and windpipe, The New York Times reported.

Previous variants would cause scarring in the lungs and serious breathing difficulty.

“It’s fair to say that the idea of a disease that manifests itself primarily in the upper respiratory system is emerging,” said Roland Eils, a computational biologist at the Berlin Institute of Health who has studied how coronaviruses infect the airway.

Ravindra Gupta, a leading variant researcher at Cambridge University and an author of one of the studies, told Insider that Omicron “is actually doing its own thing in many ways. The biology of the virus is not the same as it was before. It’s almost a new thing.”

One of the studies found that Omicron levels in the lungs were one-tenth or less of the level of other variants.

Several experiments published in recent days all pointed to the conclusion that Omicron is milder than Delta and other earlier versions of the virus, in line with real-world data.

The studies were posted online in preprint form, meaning they have yet to be reviewed by other scientists and be published in scientific journals.

Scientists at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, work on the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, Dec. 15, 2021 (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Omicron was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late November. It quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa, causing an explosion of infections with a peak of about 26,000 daily cases recorded by mid-December, according to official statistics.

The variant is currently present in more than 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and affects vaccinated people as well as those who have already had coronavirus.

Many studies suggest Omicron, now the dominant strain in some countries, carries a reduced risk of being admitted to hospital, but the WHO still urged caution.

“The overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high,” the United Nations health agency said.

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