Early indications of the severity of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are “a bit encouraging” but more information is still needed, according to leading US pandemic adviser Dr Anthony Fauci.
Reports from South Africa, where it emerged and is becoming the dominant strain, suggest hospitalisation rates have not increased alarmingly.
“Though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it, thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci said.
“Thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging. But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe, or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to Delta.”
Medical experts have in recent days underscored that the South African population skews young and more severe cases could emerge in the coming weeks.
Lab tests are under way to determine whether Omicron – a heavily mutated strain of the virus – is more transmissible than other strains, resistant to immunity from vaccination, and if infection is more severe, with results expected within weeks.
Meanwhile, US health officials said the variant has spread to about one-third of US states, but the Delta version makes up more than 99 percent of cases and is driving a surge in hospitalisations.
At least 15 US states have reported Omicron cases: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, according to a tally by the Reuters news agency.
Many of the cases were among fully vaccinated individuals with mild symptoms, although the booster shot status of some patients was not known.
“I think that there’s a real risk that we’re going to see a decrease in effectiveness of the vaccines,” Stephen Hoge, president of vaccine producer Moderna, told ABC News.
“What I don’t know is how substantial that is,” Hoge added. “Is it going to be the kind of thing that we saw with the Delta variant, which is, ultimately vaccines were still effective, or are we going to see something like a 50 percent decrease in efficacy, which would mean we need to reboot the vaccines.”
Moderna, like other pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, has already started work to adapt their vaccines if necessary.
Cases of the Omicron variant have so far been confirmed in some 40 countries.
Even if Omicron proves less dangerous than Delta, it remains problematic, World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove told CBS’ Face The Nation.
“Even if we have a large number of cases that are mild, some of those individuals will need hospitalisations,” she said. “They will need to go into ICU and some people will die… We don’t want to see that happen on top of an already difficult situation with Delta circulating globally.”
COVID-19 vaccine makers are looking to quickly tweak their shots to target Omicron and US regulators have promised speedy reviews, but that could still take months.
Moderna Inc has said it could seek US approval for an updated vaccine as soon as March, but company officials in television interviews on Sunday said it will still take time to increase output.
US government officials have also been working with vaccine makers Pfizer Inc and Johnson & Johnson on updated shots.
The United States last week imposed a travel ban on South Africa and seven other southern African countries to stem the variant’s spread.
Fauci, US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said he also hoped the United States would lift its ban on travelers from southern African countries in a “reasonable period of time”.
The South African government has complained it is being punished – instead of applauded – for discovering the new variant and quickly informing international health officials.
Fauci praised South Africa for its transparency and said the US travel ban was imposed at a time “when we were really in the dark” and needed time to study the variant.