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UK data suggest hospitalization 50-70% less likely with Omicron than Delta

Preliminary findings add to emerging evidence variant produces milder illness, but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines

Shoppers wearing face masks walk down Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, on December 23, 2021. (AP/Frank Augstein)
Shoppers wearing face masks walk down Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, on December 23, 2021. (AP/Frank Augstein)

LONDON (AP) — Preliminary data suggest that people with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50 and 70 percent less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta strain, Britain’s public health agency said Thursday.

The United Kingdom Health Security Agency (UKHSA) findings add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.

The agency said that based on cases in the UK, an individual with Omicron is estimated to be between 31-45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to one with Delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”

It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of Omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of December 20, 132 people had been admitted to UK hospitals with confirmed Omicron, of whom 14 — aged between 52 and 96 — died.

Scientists caution that any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact that Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines.

The agency’s research said the protection a booster shot of vaccine gives against symptomatic Omicron infection appears to wane after about 10 weeks, though protection against hospitalization and severe disease is likely to hold up for longer.

UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries said the analysis “shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the Omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalization than those who contract other variants.”

But she added that “cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalization could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill.”

The analysis follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with omicron were between 20-68% less likely to require hospital treatment than those with Delta.

Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested Omicron might be milder there.

Even if the early studies are borne out, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. The British health agency said Omicron appeared able to re-infect people more easily than previous variants, with 9.5% of Omicron cases found in people who had already had COVID-19 — a figure it said was likely an underestimate.

Countries around the world are looking closely at Britain, where Omicron is now dominant and where COVID-19 cases have surged by more than 50% in a week.

Britain reported 119,789 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest yet during the pandemic and the second day the number has topped 100,000.

Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimated that about 1 in 45 people in private households in England — 1.2 million individuals — had COVID-19 in the week ending on December 16, the highest level seen in the pandemic.

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