Initial data regarding the severity of the omicron Covid variant is “a bit encouraging,” according to the White House’s Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Fauci said on Sunday, that preliminary figures from South Africa suggest that it may not be as bad as initially feared.

However, Fauci warned that more data was required to draw a complete picture of omicron’s risk profile. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the variant was “of concern” on Nov.26, triggering a flurry of international travel bans and new Covid restrictions.

Fauci told CNN, “Clearly, in South Africa, omicron has a transmission advantage”. He added that “although it’s too early to make any definitive statements about it, thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.”

Fauci said, “But we’ve really gotta be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe, or really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to delta, but thus far the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity”.

As of Sunday, at least 15 US states have detected the omicron variant, and that figure is expected to increase, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It comes as South Africa sees a rise in Covid cases attributed to the omicron variant, as well as an uptick in hospitalizations. Given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the omicron Covid variant, experts are watching the real-world data coming out of South Africa closely.

Initial data

The South African Medical Research Council, released a report on Saturday, suggesting that the strain could cause a milder infection. It is too soon to determine whether it poses a greater risk of death, however, given the relatively small amount of data and how recently the variant was detected.

The report further disclosed that more younger people were being admitted to hospital with omicron Covid infections, but this could be related to lower rates of vaccination among such age groups in South Africa.

The primary observation in the report was that most of the patients were not oxygen-dependent (as was common in previous waves, the report stated) and that most of the patients in the Covid wards were “incidental Covid admissions,” having had another medical or surgical reason for admission to hospital.

These findings follow anecdotal reports from doctors in South Africa that the omicron variant could cause milder symptoms. The South African doctor who first spotted the virus said she had seen “extremely mild” symptoms among her own patients, but there has been no official data to back up those observations.

Still too soon

Although this early data seems encouraging, it is important to remain cautious as this data is based on preliminary findings from a small number of people.

When the omicron variant, or B.1.1.529 as it’s formally known, was first reported to the WHO (by South Africa on Nov. 24, with the first known sample dating back to Nov. 9) the UN health agency warned that some of the mutations found in the variant are associated with higher transmission and the ability to escape immune protection.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said during a press briefing Friday, “We do see an increasing growth rate, we see increasing numbers of omicron being detected. There is a suggestion that there is increased transmissibility, what we need to understand is if it’s more or less transmissible compared to the delta.”

She said that there was a rising number of hospitalizations being recorded in South Africa, but that public health officials had not seen an increased risk of death yet, although they were waiting on more data.

Experts and vaccine makers have noted it could take several weeks for the variant’s true risk profile to emerge, as well as its potential response to current Covid vaccines.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement Monday that there was an urgent need for citizens to get vaccinated, saying “scientific evidence shows that vaccination is the most effective means of preventing the spread of new infections and that vaccines reduce severe illness, hospitalization, and death.”

“While we do not yet know what impact the omicron variant will have on hospital admissions, we have been preparing hospitals to admit more patients, and we are investigating how we can quickly secure medication for treating Covid-19,” he added.


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