Two U.K. studies bolster idea that Omicron variant is milder

Two U.K. studies bolster idea that Omicron variant is milder. Two new British studies provide some early hints that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder in its effects than the Delta version. Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact that Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals.–179000289/,51850989.html–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/–179000289/

Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests Omicron may not be as harmful as the Delta variant, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.

“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” he said.

An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for Omicron cases in England, finding that people infected with the variant are about 20% less likely to go to the hospital than those infected with the Delta variant, and 40% less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.

That analysis included all COVID-19 cases confirmed in the first half of December by PCR tests in England in which the variant could be identified: 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.

A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested that the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 Omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults ages 20 to 39. Younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.

“This national investigation is one of the first to show that Omicron is less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalization than Delta,” researchers wrote. While the findings are early observations, “they are encouraging,” the authors wrote.

The findings have not yet been peer-reviewed by other experts, the gold standard in scientific research.

Ascano noted that the studies have limitations. For example, the findings are specific to a certain point in time during a quickly changing situation in Britain, and other countries may not fare the same way.

Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said that in the Scottish study, the percentage of younger people was almost twice as high for the Omicron group compared with the Delta group, and that “could have biased the conclusions to less-severe outcomes caused by Omicron.”

Nonetheless, he said the data were interesting and suggested that Omicron might lead to less-severe disease. He added: “It’s important to emphasize that, if Omicron has a much higher transmission rate compared to Delta, the absolute number of people requiring hospitalization might still increase, despite less-severe disease in most cases.”

Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested that Omicron might be milder there. Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious disease epidemiologist in South Africa, said earlier this week that the rate of admissions to hospitals was far lower for Omicron than it was for Delta.

“Our overall admission rate is in the region of around 2% to 4% compared to previously, where it was closer to 20%,” he said. “So even though we’re seeing a lot of cases, very few are being admitted.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is convening a special Cabinet meeting Thursday to pass a law by decree that makes it mandatory to wear masks outdoors, amid a record surge in coronavirus cases.

Sánchez announced at a meeting Wednesday with the leaders of regional governments that he was assenting to their appeals to expand mask-wearing rules, his office said. A previous outdoor mask mandate expired earlier this year. The new mandate will be a decree-law, which does not require a debate or vote in parliament to take effect.

He also announced a raft of other measures, including an offer to deploy the armed forces to help the regions step up their vaccination rollout and put military hospital beds at their disposal if they are needed.

Sánchez said he is targeting 80% of the 60-69 age group to have received booster shots by the end of next week, among other goals.

Also, coronavirus tests for professional use will temporarily be placed on sale at pharmacies, amid a reported shortage of tests, and medical teams will be reinforced with retired staff and specialists who earned their qualifications outside the European Union.

Furthermore, fully vaccinated people won’t need to quarantine if they have been in contact with an infected person — a measure that seemed to be aimed at avoiding the shortages of essential personnel.

Spain on Tuesday officially recorded almost 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. That’s higher than last January, when a surge placed the national health system under severe strain.

Spain is reporting almost 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, more than double the accumulated cases before last year’s Christmas holidays. The Omicron variant has soared from being responsible for 5% of new cases in Spain to 47% within one week.

A monument at a Hong Kong university that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was removed by workers early Thursday over the objections of its creator from Denmark.

The 26-foot tall Pillar of Shame, which depicts 50 torn and twisted bodies piled on top of each other, was made by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot to symbolize the lives lost during the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Workers barricaded the monument at the University of Hong Kong late Wednesday night. Drilling sounds and loud clanging could be heard coming from the boarded-up site, which was patrolled by guards.

The dismantling of the sculpture came days after pro-Beijing candidates scored a landslide victory in the Hong Kong legislative elections, after amendments in election laws allowed the vetting of all candidates to ensure that they are “patriots” loyal to Beijing.

The removal also happened in the same week that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam traveled to Beijing to report on developments in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, where authorities have silenced dissent following the implementation of a sweeping national security law that appeared to target much of the pro-democracy movement following mass protests in 2019.

The Pillar of Shame monument became an issue in October, with the university demanding that it be removed, even as activists and rights groups protested. Galschiot offered to take it back to Denmark provided he was given legal immunity that he won’t be persecuted under Hong Kong’s national security law, but has not succeeded so far.

“No party has ever obtained any approval from the university to display the statue on campus, and the university has the right to take appropriate actions to handle it at any time,” the university said in a statement Thursday.

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