On Thursday, Britain's Health Security Agency released the third in a string of studies published this week by researchers from South Africa, Scotland and elsewhere, which attempt to quantify how the omicron variant is less threatening to the international public, especially in societies with high-vaccination (or high previous infection) rates.
The previous two studies, which we covered earlier this week, purported to show that the new variant is up to 2/3rds less likely to send a patient to the hospital, arguing that the variant is inherently less harmful than earlier strains, setting aside the issue of increased levels of immunity in the population.
Additionally, the latest study (courtesy, as we said, of the UKHSA) also offered insights on the limits of vaccines and boosters when it comes to omicron, and, as one might expect given all the strain's mutations, it found that the efficacy of booster shots vs. the new variant begins to wane even more quickly than against earlier variants like delta.
To wit, after just 10 weeks after a patients' last booster, immunity has already fallen 15-25%.
We wouldn't be surprised to see this data, which support the notion of rapidly waning immunity, eventually be repurposed by the British government, as well as governments in the US, Israel and elsewhere, to justify rolling out the second (then the third, and then the fourth) booster doses to the public - which will then be coerced in getting then via vaccine mandates and "passports" like the green passes that have become popular in Europe.
That, of course, would directly contradict the WHO's exhortations for developed countries to spread the vaccine wealth by foregoing boosters and allowing more vaccines to filter through to the developing world, and the 100+ countries where vaccination rates remain low. It's these countries (which include some of the eight southern African countries) that should be prioritized with vaccines before the developed world helps itself to another round of boosters, Dr. Tedros, the head of the WHO, warned following the release of a report by the WHO's advisory committee.
The UKHSA also found that patients are between 31% and 45% less likely to attend emergency departments compared to those with delta, and 50-70% less likely to require admission to hospital.
These findings were based on data collected from 132 people who were admitted to, or transferred from, emergency departments in English hospitals. Of those, 17 people had received their boosters, 74 people were double vaccinated and 27 were unvaccinated. Eight people had received a single shot, and the vaccination status was unknown for 6 people. Nearly half of those hospitalized were in London alone.
The study also found that 14 people have died within 28 days of a diagnosis of omicron, ranging in age from 52 to 96 years old.
Comments on the study from top government officials were published by the UKHSA alongside a media digest of the study data.
Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA Chief Executive, said:
- "Our latest analysis shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the Omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalisation than those who contract other variants. However, it should be noted both that this is early data and more research is required to confirm these findings."
- "Cases are currently very high in the UK, and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalisation could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill. The best way that you can protect yourself is to come forward for your first 2 doses of vaccine, or your booster jab and do everything you can to stop onward transmission of the infection."
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said:
- "This new UKHSA data on Omicron is promising – while 2 doses of the vaccine aren’t enough, we know boosters offer significant protection against the variant and early evidence suggests this strain may be less severe than Delta."
- "However, cases of the variant continue to rise at an extraordinary rate – already surpassing the record daily number in the pandemic. Hospital admissions are increasing, and we cannot risk the NHS being overwhelmed."
- "This is early-stage analysis and we continue to monitor the data hour by hour. It is still too early to determine next steps, so please stay cautious this Christmas and get your booster as soon as possible to protect yourself and your loved ones."
To sum up: while omicron is less likely to cause serious harm, it's also more likely to infect a greater number of people. "Even if a smaller proportion of these individuals require hospitalisation, these are still large numbers of people requiring hospital care and pressures on the NHS will increase. It is therefore vital that people continue to exercise caution in order to limit the transmission of the virus."
Unfortunately, doling out a new booster dose every 10 weeks simply isn't feasible. So, does this data make individuals more likely to pursue boosters? Or more likely to simply go without since the shots could be put to better use elsewhere, and because of the limitations of their protection?