Omicron data show as COVID cases rise, deaths haven't so far

"Our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants," a South African researcher said.

Updated: December 23, 2021 - 6:49pm

Public health experts are pointing to data emerging from South Africa and the United Kingdom showing that despite the omicron wave, death rates have not increased as expected so far.

A study out of South Africa Wednesday suggested that Omicron has a much lower risk of severe disease compared to other COVID variants.

“In South Africa, this is the epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said National Institute for Communicable Diseases Professor Cheryl Cohen, a co-author of the study.

"Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants," she added according to Reuters

Some of the reduced rates of severe illness may also be due to higher levels of natural immunity throughout the population, the study notes.

South African Medical Research Council head Glenda Gray reported similar findings to Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health last week.

"In South Africa, we’ve seen a delinking of cases from hospital admissions. With the delta variant, the hospitalization rate links closely to the case rate," Gray said. "When we look at the omicron surge, we have more cases compared to hospital admissions. In South Africa, there are fewer hospital admissions, fewer deaths, and ICUs are under control."

While mild breakthrough infections have occurred, Gray stated as of the time of the interview, she had yet to find vaccinated people who have died from omicron.

She added that two-thirds of hospital admissions in South Africa are unvaccinated individuals.

The Associated Press reports that COVID cases in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected, dropped dramatically over the past several days. This shows that the wave may come and go relatively quickly in other locations as well.

Duane Schulthess, managing director of the health consultancy firm Vital Transformation, said he has been closely following COVID data since the start of the pandemic. For example, his firm correctly predicted in April 2020 the COVID fatality rate would decrease by 5% for each 10% increase in tests, and now, the fatality rate is about 0.2% overall, he wrote in Stat.

In the United Kingdom from May 15 to Sept. 15, 2021, during the Delta wave, as case numbers increased, so did the number of deaths. However, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 17, there is "no statistical relationship between Covid-19 case rates and deaths," Schulthess wrote.

Others are not so optimistic. Public health experts on Tuesday told The New York Times that Biden's winter COVID plan is insufficient to prevent an increase in infections and hospitalizations.

Another study from the U.K.'s Imperial College London found "no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta." The study also noted that Omicron "largely evades immunity from past infection or two vaccine doses."