Covid: Omicron may be 29% less severe than Delta, suggests South African doctor who discovered it

The Omicron variant of coronavirus, which pushed the UK into tightening Covid restrictions, may be 29% less severe than the Delta mutation, according to a leading South African doctor.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, who first alerted the world to the new variant, told UK MPs that a study carried out in South Africa - where the variant was first discovered - shows the infections it causes seem to be "mild".

She accepted scientists "don't have all the answers" when it comes to Omicron and it is "still early days" but said the data shows Covid vaccines provide a good level of protection against it.

"The breakthrough infections we are seeing are mild... (and) the symptoms we are seeing in (vaccinated) people are less severe or intense than in the unvaccinated," she told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

She said new study found the Pfizer vaccine offers 70% protection against hospital admission, citing a report by the South African Medical Research Council.

The physician, who chairs South African Medical Association, added the report's claim that Omicron is 29% less severe "makes sense".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was forced to tighten restrictions in England, and ramp up the booster jab campaign, because hospitalisations in South Africa have doubled in a week.

Huge queues said to be hours long have formed outside vaccination centres around the country. Credit: PA

He said the same could soon happen in the UK, warning of a "tidal wave of Omicron" that could cause "very many deaths" - he told his Cabinet on Tuesday morning that a "huge spike" of the variant was expected in the UK.

Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, told ministers that a "significant increase in hospitalisations" from Omicron is expected.

"He said it was too early to say whether cases were reducing or plateauing in South Africa but there was no reliable evidence from South African scientists of a peak in case rates," the PM's spokesman said.

"He added that it also remained too early to say how severe the Omicron variant was but that we can expect a significant increase in hospitalisations as cases increase."

But Dr Coetzee said between 88% to 90% of people in South African hospitals with Omicron are unvaccinated and hospitals there are "are still not overwhelmed".

South African Dr Angelique Coetzee believes the Omicron variant may be mild compared to Delta. Credit: Parliament

Around 90% of people in the UK have had at least one done of a coronavirus vaccine, almost 26 million people have had a booster jab, and the government is aiming to have offered a third dose to all eligible adults in England before the end of the year.

Lengthy queues were already developing for booster vaccinations in England on Tuesday morning after people waited up to five hours for a jab on Monday.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Covid-19 panel of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told MPs it was important to give the booster before the Omicron wave comes.

"The principle here is that if you give a booster you get a high immune response," he said, adding: "There is less benefit in giving a booster in the middle of a wave or after a wave."

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for the UK Health Security Agency, said data shows Omicron presents three to eight times the risk of reinfection compared to Delta.

But she added: "We are yet to have is a signal of severity...we will have to wait until we have cases in hospital to make that assessment."

Dr Coetzee has previously said the UK was “panicking unnecessarily” when it blocked all flights from a number of southern African countries over Omicron.

The report she cited to MPs has used new real-world data from the first three weeks after Omicron was discovered in South Africa to assess its impact.

'A tidal wave is coming': Boris Johnson warns Britons about Omicron on Sunday night:

The study was based on 211,000 positive coronavirus test results in the three weeks to December 7, including 78,000 thought to be Omicron.

It found that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab makes vaccinated people 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital compared with those who are unvaccinated.

This is lower than the 93% protection the jabs gave during the Delta wave, but still offers a good degree of protection.

Overall, adults infected with Omicron were 29% less likely to need hospital care compared with earlier variants, the study found.

Younger age groups were slightly less likely to go to hospital than older people, though experts think this may be due to waning immunity in older people who were given their vaccines first.