Health and Healthcare Systems

What do we know about the impact of Omicron so far?

Someone holding a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

'But the full potential of Omicron’s impact on the unvaccinated, the elderly, and global COVID-19 management is yet unknown.' Image: UNSPLASH/Mika Baumeister

Manavi Kapur
Journalist, Quartz India
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  • Our understanding about the Omicron COVID-19 variant is still incomplete.
  • So far, Omicron symptoms generally appear to be mild, but there are gaps in scientific knowledge about its impact on the elderly and the unvaccinated.
  • Studies suggest a third dose of the vaccine significantly improves protection.
  • However, it is still likely to outpace Delta as the dominant variant.

With the Omicron variant spreading to more than 60 countries, there’s more understanding about its various aspects.

One of these aspects is the unusual symptoms one doctor has reported in north London. According to David Lloyd, a general medicine practitioner, 15% of the children infected with Omicron in the locality developed spots on their bodies. So far, the most common covid-19 symptoms have been cough, fever, fatigue, and loss of taste and smell. Anything beyond these run the risk of going undetected, he told Sky News.

The Omicron jigsaw puzzle is still incomplete and data are only gradually rolling in. For instance, Angelique Coetzee, a general medicine doctor in South Africa and chair of the South African Medical Association, had reported on Nov. 27 that most Omicron cases she had seen had been “very, very mild.” Some of these, she added, displayed symptoms that were different from the usual).

One such case, according to Coetzee, was a six-year-old child with fever and a “very high pulse rate.” While Coetzee was contemplating whether or not to hospitalise the child, a follow-up call two days later revealed that the child’s health had significantly improved.

“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa—and remember that I’m at the epicentre, that’s where I’m practising—is extremely mild…We haven’t admitted anyone [to the hospital]. I spoke to other colleagues of mine: the same picture,” she told the BBC.

But the full potential of Omicron’s impact on the unvaccinated, the elderly, and global covid-19 management is yet unknown.

“There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron,” the World Health Organization said on Dec. 10. “While preliminary findings from South Africa suggest it may be less severe than Delta, and all cases reported in the EU/EEA to date have been mild or asymptomatic, it remains unclear to what extent Omicron may be inherently less virulent.”

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Are vaccines effective against Omicron?

The cases among children, including one in India, could largely be attributed to the fact that several countries have not yet vaccinated children.

However, the new variant, which has over 30 mutations on the spike protein of the coronavirus, likely evades some of the immunity conferred by vaccines. Early studies from the UK’s health security agency show that Omicron reduces the efficacy of two-dose vaccines like Pfizer and AstraZeneca’s. For comparison, the AstraZeneca vaccine offered up to 60% protection against the Delta variant 25 weeks after the dose was completed. In Omicron’s case, this was down to 40%.

But the study showed that a third dose greatly improved the antibody count and offered increased protection against Omicron.

A key question remains, though: Could Omicron be as infectious as Delta?

Is Omicron as bad as Delta?

Some early findings suggest that Omicron may spread faster than the Delta variant, which was, so far, the most transmissible coronavirus variant yet.

But the WHO is unclear yet if the faster spread translates to Omicron’s inherent virulence.

Based on limited existing evidence, Omicron appears to have a growth advantage over Delta. “It [Omicron] is spreading faster than the Delta variant in South Africa where Delta circulation was low, but also appears to spread more quickly than the Delta variant in other countries where the incidence of Delta is high, such as in the UK,” the WHO said.


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It could not conclusively say whether Omicron’s observed rapid growth rate in countries with high levels of population immunity is related to evasion of immunity from past infection and vaccines, increased transmissibility intrinsic to the variant, or a combination of both.

“However, given the current available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs,” the WHO said.

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