By James Gallagher-Health and science correspondent
https://www.bbc.com-Image source, Getty Images
The wave of Omicron appears to be milder according to preliminary studies published in the UK and South Africa.
Early evidence suggests fewer people are needing hospital treatment – potentially around a two-thirds reduction – than with other variants.
However, the Scottish study is based on very few cases and had few people over 65, who are most at risk.
And the concern remains that even if Omicron is milder, the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals.
The study in Scotland has been tracking coronavirus and the number of people ending up in hospital.
It said that if Omicron behaved the same as Delta then they would expect around 47 people to have been admitted to hospital already. At the moment there are only 15.
Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director at Public Health Scotland, described it as a “qualified good news story”.
He said the data was “filling in a blank” about protection against hospitalisation, but cautioned it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.
The Omicron variant is spreading incredibly quickly and the number of confirmed cases reported in a single day in the UK has now exceeded 100,000.
The study has been shared with the World Health Organization and the UK government’s science advisers.
Prof Mark Woolhouse, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains.”
Meanwhile, another study in South Africa also points to people being less likely to need hospital treatment for Omicron.
It showed people were 70-80% less likely to need hospital treatment, depending on whether Omicron is compared to previous waves, or other variants currently circulating.
However, it suggested there was no difference in outcomes for the few patients that ended up in hospital with Omicron.
“Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants,” said Prof Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, in South Africa.
It is still unclear whether the Omicron variant is fundamentally milder or is appearing milder as we now have far more immunity.
The UK Health Security Agency is expected to publish early real-world data on Omicron soon, which could give indications on the variant’s severity.