The World Health Organization’s Africa regional health officials said Thursday that while the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has driven up cases dramatically, there are early indications the variant is less severe than the delta strain.
In a virtual briefing Thursday, the officials said overall, the continent saw a 93% increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the past week — 107,000, compared to 55,000 the previous week.
WHO said five southern African countries accounted for 86% of all cases reported over the past week. Southern Africa recorded the highest increase with a 140% rise, mainly driven by South Africa, where cases were up 225%.
But Dr. Richard Mihigo, WHO’s immunization and vaccines development chief, said that in hospitalizations across South Africa during roughly the same week, intensive care unit occupancy stood at only 6.3%. He said this is very low compared to the surge caused by the delta variant in July.
Mihigo said while it is a very small sample size and the data is preliminary, it would indicate the omicron strain may cause less severe disease.
Meanwhile, officials with the European Union’s drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, drew similar conclusions on Thursday.
During a briefing at the agency’s headquarters in The Hague, EMA vaccine strategies chief Marco Cavaleri said most of the early omicron cases they have seen also appeared to be mostly mild.
He also cautioned that more evidence needed to be examined to determine whether the spectrum of disease severity caused by omicron is different than the other variants seen so far.
Cavaleri also said time will tell if the strain may be replacing delta as the dominant virus.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse.