The bad news about the Omicron variant is that it’s spreading quite rapidly in South Africa and has already appeared in other countries, including the U.S. In South Africa, new reported cases of the coronavirus have spiked from about 250 per day a month ago, to about 2,500 per day a week ago, to 11,500 yesterday. In three days, new coronavirus cases have nearly tripled, due to the emergence of the new variant.
The tentative good news about this variant is that so far it doesn’t seem to be causing highly serious illness. According to Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, “the majority of cases are currently presenting as a mild illness.” Most patients have had a dry cough, fever, and night sweats, he adds.
It’s true, that hospitalizations are rising. However, Madhi says they are not yet rising at the same pace as new cases.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, says the nation’s hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed by patients infected with the new variant, and that most of those hospitalized were not fully immunized. Moreover, most patients she has seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough.
Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, sees things the same way. He says the new variant appears to cause mild infections. He predicts that “the damage in terms of hospitalization and stress on the health system will be less than what we have seen in the second wave.”
What about the number of deaths attributed to the virus? A month ago, they were averaging between 30 and 40 a day. The number is still at about that level, with the exception of November 25 when, for some reason, it rocketed to 114. This outlier probably was not due to the new variant, which didn’t take a foothold in time to cause a big increase in deaths by Nov. 25.
By the same token, it might also be true that the new variant didn’t gain a foothold early enough to cause a spike in significant increase in deaths even now. It’s true, too, that most of the early cases seem to have arisen among the relatively young, which is not a highly vulnerable population.
Thus, we can’t be confident that the omicron variant won’t end up killing a large number of people in South Africa and, eventually, elsewhere. We can’t even be confident that it will be less lethal than the original form of the virus and the delta variant.
However, initial indications — anecdotal and statistical — provide reason to hope that it won’t be.