Omicron may be no worse than flu, says government adviser

Britain’s omicron wave may be no worse than a flu pandemic, an expert has said, as the first major study into the new variant suggests it is less severe than delta.

The first real-world study looking at 78,000 omicron cases in South Africa found the risk of hospitalisation is 29 per cent lower compared with the Wuhan strain, and 23 per cent lower than delta, with vaccines holding up well.

Far fewer people have also needed intensive care from omicron, with just five per cent of cases admitted to ICU compared to 22 per cent of delta patients, the study shows.

Professor Robert Dingwall, a government Covid adviser, from Nottingham Trent University, said it was clear from the South African data that panic was unjustified. Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Dingwall said: “The omicron situation seems to be increasingly absurd. There is obviously a lot of snobbery about South African science and medicine but their top people are as good as any you would find in a more universally developed country.

“They clearly don’t feel that the elite panic over here is justified, even allowing for the demographic differences in vulnerability – which are probably more than cancelled by the higher vaccination rate. 

“My gut feeling is that omicron is very much like the sort of flu pandemic we planned for – a lot of sickness absence from work in a short period, which will create difficulties for public services and economic activity, but not of such a severity as to be a big problem for the NHS and the funeral business.”

He offered his assessment as it emerged the Liberal Democrats leader, Labour shadow chancellor, Labour shadow transport secretary and Labour shadow education secretary have all tested positive for the virus.

Daily reported cases rose to 59,610, an increase of 12.1 per cent in the past week. However, the number of tests carried out has risen 12.4 per cent in the same period, and the percentage of people testing positive is relatively stable at around 10 per cent.

‘Heartening and encouraging results’ 

The data from South Africa, which was compiled by Discovery Health, its largest private health insurer, and the South Africa Medical Research Council (SAMRC), found that although there were high numbers of breakthrough infections in people who had been vaccinated, cases appeared to be less severe, and this was backed up by anecdotal evidence from doctors on the ground.

They found that effectiveness against infection dropped from 80 per cent to 33 per cent but offered 70 per cent protection against hospital admissions, and this was maintained across age groups and chronic conditions. At the time of the study there had been no deaths.

Professor Glenda Geray, of SAMRC, said: “It’s very heartening to see these results and release that vaccine effectiveness is still greater than 50 per cent. So it’s encouraging and again – the booster strategy may also mitigate the reduction in vaccine effectiveness.

“I think it’s too early for us to make that call but we can say that prior infection and vaccination are affecting the reduction of admission and serious illness. And we’re seeing a shorter duration in hospitalisation.

“People who have been vaccinated are staying in hospital just 2.4 days.”

The study also showed that the odds of reinfection were lower than during delta, suggesting that people who had a delta infection may be better protected.

The researchers said that although excess natural deaths had increased in South Africa in recent weeks, they were still significantly lower than during previous waves.

Ryan Noach, chief executive of Discovery Health, said: “You can see clearly that in omicron, the adult population has a 29 per cent lower risk of admission.

“If you look at the proportion of patients admitted to high care in ICU for severe illness, across the first three waves, the proportion of patients in high care and ICU collectively goes up to 35 per cent, whereas in this omicron period, it is only about 13 per cent.

“The data is correlating with the anecdotal feedback. At this point, there is hope the severity is lower. Excess natural deaths are significantly lower than in previous waves despite the rapid growth in infections.”

At the science and technology select committee, Kate Bingham, who led the Government’s vaccine programme, said the data from South Africa were encouraging. “It may be omicron is a more mild disease. It is clearly widely divergent from the Wuhan strain.”


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