The omicron surge is hitting the United States, with new coronavirus cases climbing rapidly and public health officials warning that hospitals could be hit hard by a tidal wave in patients in the coming weeks.
But officials also stressed that vaccinations, and especially booster shots, will give Americans strong protection against serious illness, which could make the coming surge less deadly than last year’s devastating winter. Whether hospitalizations will surpass last year’s numbers depends on several factors: how severe omicron ends up being and whether residents comply with mask mandates, avoid crowded risky indoor public settings and get vaccinated or boosted.
In the flurry of headlines about omicron, here are three pieces of good news you may have missed:
1. Two new studies hint omicron is milder than delta
Two British studies provide some early hints that the omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the delta version.
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% less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the delta variant, and 40% 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.
“This national investigation is one of the first to show that Omicron is less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalization than Delta,” researchers wrote. While the findings are early observations, “they are encouraging,” the authors wrote.
2. The wave may be brief and result in fewer hospitalizations than delta
South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven surge has passed its peak.
The country has been at the forefront of the omicron wave, where daily virus case counts rose quickly in a ferocious spike, but after hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Dec. 16, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province — South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.
“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths,” said Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand. It is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease.”
In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly less hospitalizations, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
But then cases in Gauteng started falling. After reaching 16,000 new infections on Dec. 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped, to just over 3,300 cases Tuesday.
“It’s significant. It’s very significant,” Dr. Fareed Abdullah said of the decrease.
“The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we’re seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave,” said Abdullah, working in the COVID-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
3. Pfizer pill likely to work on omicron
The Biden administration expects to take delivery of 4 million courses of COVID-19 treatments by the end of January, including 265,000 courses of Pfizer Inc.’s newly authorized pill, according to officials familiar with the matter — sharply ramping up therapies for the disease as the omicron variant spreads.
Pfizer’s pill was authorized Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration, and authorization for Merck & Co.’s pill came Thursday. The Pfizer pill, expected to be the treatment of choice, will be in short supply until production can ramp up.
The overall group of treatments includes a monoclonal antibody product, pre-exposure preventive drugs for immuno-compromised people, and new antiviral pills, the officials said.
The treatments will give doctors a larger arsenal to fight severe coronavirus cases as the U.S. endures another surge of the disease, driven by omicron.
The FDA authorized Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid on Wednesday, the first such pill to treat COVID-19 cases. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, called it a “major step forward in the fight against this global pandemic.” Thursday, the FDA authorized Merck’s molnupiravir.
The authorizations could come with recommendations on which pills are best suited for different populations. Pfizer’s was cleared for use in people age 12 and up who weigh at least 88 pounds.
The U.S. now has two COVID antiviral pills, one preventative treatment and one monoclonal antibody treatment that the administration believes are effective against omicron.
The pills from both Pfizer and Merck are expected to be effective against omicron because they don’t target the spike protein where most of the variant’s worrisome mutations reside. Pfizer tested its antiviral drug against a human-made version of a key protein that omicron uses to reproduce itself.
The officials said the U.S. should have nearly 400,000 courses of Merck’s pill available upon its authorization and 65,000 courses of Pfizer’s pill. By the end of January, the government expects to have received a total of about 3 million Merck courses — its entire order — and 265,000 Pfizer courses.
And the U.S. expects nearly a half-million more doses of AstraZeneca’s preventative treatment by the end of January, the people said.
The treatments will be made available for free to states on a per-capita basis, the officials said. At first, Pfizer’s pill will most likely be given out by doctors writing a prescription for someone who is in the first three days of symptoms and is high-risk, Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser, said Wednesday.