No evidence has come to light yet that indicates the Omicron virus variant causes more severe illness when compared to other strains, South African officials said Friday.
Science on Omicron’s severity “is not yet clear,” South African Health Minister Joe Paahla told reporters in a virtual briefing.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have jumped in South Africa in recent weeks, driving fears that Omicron could cause more severe illness than earlier strains like Delta.
The country reported 22,391 new cases on Thursday, up from under 20,000 the day prior and about 8,500 a week before.
Over 430 people were admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in 24 hours, authorities reported, more than triple those seen on Dec. 1.
But the increase in hospitalizations “may be largely due to overall big numbers of infections,” Paahla said.
He also said, citing reports from doctors in the country, that COVID-19 cases from Omicron present the same symptoms as other variants, including cough, fever, and diarrhea, though some doctors have reported unusual symptoms.
Scientists are hard at work studying the variant and will report updates in the future, officials said.
Early research on Omicron indicates it evades the protection bestowed by vaccination better than earlier strains, and may also better escape immunity from prior infection.
South Africa officials, though, say they see signs that the protection from vaccines is holding up well in terms of preventing severe disease, with many hospitalized patients being unvaccinated.
“We are seeing that this vaccine is maintaining effectiveness. It may be slightly reduced, but we are seeing effectiveness be maintained for hospital admission,” Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said during the briefing.
Some scientists say Omicron has markers suggesting it transmits easier, though experts say it’s too soon to definitively say that’s the case.
“There is currently no evidence of increased reinfection risk at the population level, but preliminary analyses indicate approximately three- to eight-fold increased risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant,” the UK Health Security Agency said in a technical briefing paper (pdf) on Friday.
South Africa is planning to start rolling out boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine with an eye towards making an addition Johnson & Johnson shot available soon.
Boosters are generally discouraged by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to a limited vaccine stock globally but the United Nations group recommended this week that immunocompromised populations should receive a booster, in addition to anybody who received an inactivated COVID-19 vaccine.
No deaths have been confirmed among people sickened by the Omicron variant, WHO and UK authorities say.
Most cases in the United States have been mild and many of them have already resolved.