Two new British studies provide some early hints that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the Delta version.
Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.
Some experts also say more people are likely to have some level of immunity at this stage of the pandemic, either through vaccination or a previous COVID-19 infection.
Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests Omicron may not be as harmful as the Delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.
“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.
An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for Omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20 per cent less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the Delta variant, and 40 per cent less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
That analysis included all cases of COVID-19 confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.
A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 Omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults ages 20-39. Younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.
Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested Omicron might be milder there.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 5:35 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
For more details on how COVID-19 is impacting your community — including hospital data and the latest on restrictions — check out the coverage from CBC newsrooms around the country.
WATCH | Omicron predominant in several areas across Canada:
Newfoundland and Labrador is back in COVID-19 Alert Level 3 as of this morning, brought on by a rapid increase in cases, the emergence of the Omicron variant and outbreaks found across three of the province’s regional health authorities. At Level 3, people are asked to stay home as much as possible and to maintain a household bubble of up to 20 people.
On Prince Edward Island, Health P.E.I. says the province could soon be changing rules on when health-care workers have to self-isolate. CEO Dr. Michael Gardam said making staff who have been close contacts self-quarantine until they receive negative results could soon become unsustainable if COVID-19 cases continue to ramp up.
In Quebec, Premier François Legault announced further measures Wednesday evening that will take effect on Dec. 26. Legault said indoor gatherings in the province will be limited to six people — or two family bubbles. He’s also recommending that people over the age of 60 not socialize over the holidays and urging Quebecers to have only one holiday gathering.
WATCH | Ottawa, provinces promise businesses more financial pandemic support:
In Ontario, Toronto Public Health has declared COVID-19 outbreaks at three homeless shelters, and the city says it will deploy more staff to the shelters if need be to curb virus spread. Homeless advocates say the city needs to step up its vaccination, testing, masking and air filtration efforts.
Manitoba reported 400 new cases Wednesday, as the province announced plans to delay the return to school after the holidays until Jan. 10. The province also plans to distribute KN95 respirator masks at Winnipeg liquor outlets and casinos, beginning today, and across the province after Christmas.
In Saskatchewan, there were 105 new cases reported on Wednesday. The province’s Opposition and a health analyst are both questioning the province’s lack of response to a potential Omicron surge. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab released new modelling Tuesday predicting that without additional health measures the province’s daily case count will surpass 300 in one month. Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said “there is a shocking disconnect” between what the modelling is showing and the government not implementing additional measures. “It makes zero sense,” he said.
Health officials in Alberta reported 1,346 new cases Wednesday. Confirmed cases of the Omicron variant grew to 2,131 on Wednesday, up from 1,609 in Tuesday’s update. The province is reducing allowable gathering numbers as of Christmas Eve. Restaurants, pubs and bars will have a maximum table capacity of 10 people, while events that seat more than 1,000 people will be at 50 per cent capacity.
WATCH | Doctors, public officials receiving more threats as pandemic frustrations mount:
In British Columbia, health officials on Wednesday reported a record 1,474 new cases of COVID-19. Despite the increase in cases, the province’s hospitalization rate from COVID-19 remains stable. Also on Wednesday, a report from an independent COVID-19 modelling group said hospitalizations due to B.C.’s Omicron-fuelled fifth wave will reach unprecedented heights by around mid-January.
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 6:30 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Thursday, more than 277.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.3 million.
WATCH | U.K. breaks daily record with 100,000 new cases:
In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea has set a new record for daily COVID-19 deaths as it struggles to resolve a shortage of hospital beds amid weeks of surging cases. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Thursday that 109 people died in the latest 24-hour period. That raised the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015.
Australia has reintroduced curbs such as indoor mask-wearing, capacity limits and QR code check-ins to cover most of the population as daily infections hit a record.
In the Americas, the U.S. Supreme Court says it will hold a special session to weigh challenges to two Biden administration policies covering vaccine requirements for millions of workers, policies that affect large employers and health-care workers. The high court said it will hear arguments in the cases on Jan. 7, an extraordinarily fast timeline.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 7:30 p.m. ET