A new study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School among others has found that the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is just as severe as earlier variants, and not more transmissible but no less severe, as previously thought.
The study was based on the records of 130,000 COVID patients in Massachusetts and carried out by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Minerva University along with Harvard and is currently being peer-reviewed by Nature Portfolio, according to a Reuters report.
But its findings, which evaluated the severity of omicron after accounting for the effect of vaccines, underscores how important vaccines and boosters are, and shows they helped rein in hospitalizations and deaths during the omicron surge.
“Although the unadjusted rates of hospital admission and mortality appeared to be higher in previous waves compared to the Omicron period, after adjusting for confounders including various demographics, Charlson comorbidity index scores, and vaccination status (and holding the healthcare utilization constant), we found that the risks of hospitalization and mortality were nearly identical between periods,” the authors wrote.
“Our analysis suggests that the intrinsic severity of the Omicron variant may be as severe as previous variants.”
The study comes after a Washington Post analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data earlier this week found that omicron caused a spike in deaths in January and February among people who were vaccinated. Those deaths were mostly among elderly people and those with compromised immune systems and are thought to have had waning protection from vaccination.
Experts agree that vaccination and boosters remain the best protection against severe disease and death and continue to urge unvaccinated people to get their shots. And there are concerns that the initial view that omicron caused only mild symptoms may have actually persuaded the vaccine hesitant that they didn’t need to be inoculated.
The study comes as cases continue to rise across the U.S. after their steep decline early in the year, driven by the BA.2 variant of omicron, and two subvariants that appear to be even more infectious. The two, named BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, were highlighted by health officials in New York state recently.
The U.S. is averaging 67,953 cases a day, up 59% from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. Cases are climbing in all but four states and territories and have more than doubled from two weeks ago in more than a dozen, the tracker shows.
The country is averaging 18,181 hospitalizations a day, up 20% from two weeks ago, but still relatively low. The daily death toll has fallen below 400 to 366 on average.
The World Health Organization said Thursday that new estimates show that the full death toll associated either directly or indirectly with the COVID-19 pandemic between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021, is about 15 million.
That number compares with the tally provided by Johns Hopkins University of 6.24 million.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• U.S. regulators on Thursday strictly limited who can receive Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine due to a rare but serious risk of blood clots, the Associated Press reported. The Food and Drug Administration said the shot should only be given to adults who cannot receive a different vaccine or specifically request the Janssen vaccine from J&J
U.S. authorities for months have recommended that Americans starting their COVID-19 vaccinations use the Pfizer
shots instead. FDA’s vaccine chief, Dr. Peter Marks, said the agency decided to restrict the vaccine after taking another look at the data on the risks of life-threatening blood clots and concluding that they are limited to J&J’s vaccine.
• North Carolina state employees will get an extra day of vacation for receiving a COVID-19 booster, Gov. Roy Cooper announced as the state government there uses a new incentive to increase vaccination rates, the AP reported separately. Cooper signed an executive order that provides the leave to permanent, probationary or time-limited workers whose cabinet-level agencies report to him. The extra time off will be given to those who have already received the first COVID-19 booster or those who show documentation by Aug. 31 of receiving one.
• The number of unruly air-passenger incidents in the U.S. has fallen since a federal judge in Florida overturned the federal mandate, the New York Times reported, citing data from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency reported 1.9 incidents per 10,000 flights during the week ending April 24, down from 4.4 incidents per 10,000 flights a week earlier. It declined to cite a reason for the drop. The CDC continues to recommend that people wear face masks on public transport and in public-transport hubs, especially as subvariants of omicron continue to circulate.
• China’s elderly population’s reluctance to get vaccinated is challenging the country’s zero-COVID strategy, the Washington Post reported. Unlike most of China’s coronavirus prevention measures, vaccination is not mandatory, and low uptake among the country’s most vulnerable groups is a major reason Communist Party leaders feel compelled to persist with a grueling “zero-COVID” approach. That has led to a strict lockdown in Shanghai that is now being eased. Chinese President Xi Jinping said relaxation of the strategy now would lead to “massive numbers of infections” and deaths.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 516.2 million on Wednesday, while the death toll rose above 6.24 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 81.7 million cases and 996,996 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 219.9 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.3% of the total population. But just 101 million are boosted, equal to 45.9% of the vaccinated population.