A South African study offered Christmas glad tidings about the severity of Omicron and the trend of Covid-19 infections on Wednesday as the fast-spreading coronavirus variant forced countries across the world to impose new curbs.
The study by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) suggested that those infected with Omicron were much less likely to end up in hospital than those with Delta.
Covid-19 cases also appear to have peaked in South Africa’s Gauteng province, which is its commercial hub and the region of the country where Omicron first emerged.
Elsewhere, governments raced to contain the variant’s rapid spread, urging citizens to vaccinate as Omicron becomes the dominant strain and upending reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the end of the pandemic, and unnerving financial markets.
Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.
Wales will reintroduce social distancing from Dec 26. Health experts in Germany said new curbs there probably did not go far enough. The health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown.
Italy is preparing new measures and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said.
Austria is to order a 10pm close in the hospitality sector and classified Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway as risk areas, meaning arrivals from there must go into quarantine if they have not had a booster shot.
Belgium, the Czech Republic and Spain were also considering new curbs. The Indian capital of New Delhi banned Christmas and other celebrations.
The Chinese city of Xi’an told its 13 million residents to stay at home as it struggles to contain rising Covid-19 cases under Beijing’s zero-tolerance policy. Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Warriors, has not imposed a harsh lockdown as seen in early 2020 in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified, but urged residents not to leave town.
Omicron was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong. Preliminary data indicates it is more resistant to vaccines developed before it emerged.
South Africa’s NICD study, conducted with major universities, has not been peer-reviewed. It compared South African Omicron data from October and November with data about Delta between April and November.
The authors found that the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80% lower for those with Omicron, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30% lower.
“In South Africa, this is the epidemiology: Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe,” said Cheryl Cohen of the NICD, one of the authors.
“Compellingly, together our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants.”
Still, the authors included caveats and cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying high population immunity was a likely factor. A study by Imperial College London last week found no sign Omicron was milder.
Policymakers across the world are scrambling to address the economic blow that might come from new outbreaks; Britain on Tuesday announced 1 billion pounds (US$1.3 billion) of support for businesses hit hardest.
Some 300 South Korean business owners protested in Seoul on Wednesday against the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to scrap its “vaccine pass” policy and compensate for losses.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed a health ministry panel’s recommendation that over 60s, those with compromised immune systems and health workers should receive fourth Covid shots.