South Africa's Discovery Health, one of the country's biggest health insurers, has just briefed the public on the results of its latest study, and it's findings aren't exactly a surprise. While the omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa, is efficient at surpassing protections afforded by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Discovery data showed that Pfizer's jab is actually 70% effective at reducing hospitalizations.
That might help explain why the omicron variant has coincided with a surge in cases in South Africa, even while the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths have declined.
The protection is maintained across age groups and in the face of a range of chronic illnesses, said Ryan Noach, the CEO of Discovery Health, during a briefing Tuesday. All told, a course of Pfizer jabs conveys protection of approximately 33% against infection by the omicron variant, according to Bloomberg.
The Discovery study included about 78K COVID test results for omicron infections from Nov. 15 to Dec. 7 in South Africa, the epicenter of the current omicron wave. Clinical records, vaccination records and pathology test results were also examined.
Prior to omicron, the Pfizer vaccine provided Discovery Health’s clients with 93% protection against hospitalization (although many have also raised questions about that number).
So far, as cases continue to climb, hospitalizations are a fraction of what they were during South Africa's delta wave; meanwhile, deaths haven't budged much.
Both Discovery and Glenda Gray, the chief executive of the South African Medical Research Council, cautioned that the lack of severe cases and deaths could be a result of the high number of infections in South Africa. In some parts of the country, 80% of the population has already been infected.
Discovery's data also showed that omicron is causing less respiratory distress than delta. Symptoms of the new variant include a scratchy throat, congestion and lower back pain, and illnesses generally last three days or less.
Updated normalised cases, admissions and deaths for Gauteng. Signs of decoupling continues. Suggests immunity from prior infections and/or vaccinations are providing some protection from severe COVID19 disease. Don't interpret as decreased virulence of Omicron. pic.twitter.com/6AyuwkqsEk— Harry Moultrie (@hivepi) December 14, 2021
While evidence of increased virulence might create peace of mind for some, the South African Medical Research Council's Glenda Gray cautioned workers not to slack off just because omicron appears to be 'less virulent.'
Finally, the Discovery study echoes the initial findings of three other hospital group studies released in recent weeks. In the bulk of cases, COVID patients don’t need oxygen or intensive treatment for the illness. Scientists are still conducting scores of tests in order to get a better grasp of omicron’s risks, and how significant they are will only be known in coming weeks.