Experts say Omicron variant spares the lungs, a possible explanation for milder illness

Deaths and hospitalizations have not yet followed huge spike in cases over past few weeks.
Illustration of a coronavirus

Experts are arguing that the apparently milder SARS-CoV-2 variant dubbed "omicron" may be comparatively gentler on those who contract it in part because it does not attack the lungs as aggressively as earlier forms of the virus.

In studies involving infected rodents, omicron "produced less damaging infections, often limited largely to the upper airway: the nose, throat and windpipe," the New York Times reported this week

"It's fair to say that the idea of a disease that manifests itself primarily in the upper respiratory system is emerging," Berlin Institute of Health biologist Roland Ei told the newspaper.

COVID-19's viral fearsomeness has been due in large part to the overwhelming effect it had on many patients' lungs; the virus can in many cases manifest as "a significant pro-inflammatory condition” which can "result in several critical diseases, complications and syndromes," according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Public health officials and experts have been scrambling in recent weeks to figure out why the omicron variant has spread so rapidly while resulting in what appears to be on average far less severe illnesses than earlier versions.

In the case of the variant's spread, "cases skyrocketed, [but] hospitalizations increased only modestly," the Times also reports.