New data from Scotland and South Africa suggest people infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus are at markedly lower risk of hospitalization than those who contracted earlier versions of the virus, promising signs that vaccines remain effective at warding off severe illness with the fast-spreading strain.
Scientists caution, though, that Omicron’s heightened transmissibility—and its ability to sidestep immunity from vaccination or prior infection—means it still has the potential to cause further waves of sickness and death simply by infecting many more people.
“The combination of increased risk of transmission and immune evasion of Omicron mean that any advantage in reduced hospitalization could potentially be exceeded by increased rates of infection in the community,” said researchers at the University of Edinburgh in a paper detailing their findings that is still to be peer-reviewed.
The Edinburgh study, drawing on the health records of 5.4 million people in Scotland, found the risk of hospitalization with Covid-19 was two-thirds lower with Omicron than with Delta.
The data from Scotland, which actually has a higher average age than the U.S., is particularly encouraging and suggests that the data from South Africa isn’t just a demographic illusion. The increased transmissibility of Omicron is bad, but even more so than with previous major strains the risks of hospitalization and death are overwhelmingly tilted to the unvaccinated.