New research suggests that getting infected with the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) omicron variant may help people ward off the more dangerous delta. These findings could have significant implications for countries that are seeing a rise in omicron infections while still battling the delta variant.
Researchers took blood samples of individuals infected with the fast-spreading variant and measured their antibody levels to see how well the virus-fighting proteins react to both.
Lab tests conducted two weeks after the patients joined the study showed that antibody levels spiked 14-fold in response to the omicron variant and a 4.4-fold increase against delta. Studies that delved into the topic showed that the antibodies that are made in response to delta have reacted poorly to omicron.
Professor Alex Sigal, lead researcher and virologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa said that the findings suggested omicron could move the pandemic in the endemic phase. “The increase in neutralizing immunity against Omicron was expected, that is the virus these individuals were infected with,” he said. “However, we also saw that the same people – especially those who were vaccinated – developed enhanced immunity to the delta variant.”
Sigal noted that omicron is the less pathogenic variant that could push delta out, adding that it should decrease the likelihood of someone infected with omicron getting reinfected with delta.
“If that is true, then the disruption COVID has caused in our lives may become less,” he said.
Omicron now the dominant strain
While evidence has shown that omicron spreads faster, it is milder than previous strains and is less likely to put people in the hospital. The variant is now the dominant strain in Britain and has caused COVID cases to hit record levels. (Related: South African health workers: Symptoms associated with omicron are very mild.)
It also drove a surge of infections in the U.S., which saw infections top over 500,000 a day.
Sigal and his colleagues analyzed blood from 13 patients who had recovered from omicron, six were unvaccinated and the majority of had been hospitalized for contracting the virus.
The blood samples of the volunteer patients were tested in laboratory experiments against live versions of both the omicron and delta variants. While the paper was published as a preprint and is yet to be peer-reviewed, Nathan Grubaugh, a virologist from Yale University, said that the results matched on-ground observations.
Grubaugh said: “We are seeing omicron exponentially rise while delta cases are falling. This suggests to me that omicron is outcompeting delta for susceptible individuals, leaving them less susceptible to delta in the aftermimath and driving down delta cases.”
However, the scientists did not confirm whether or not the individuals have previously been infected with delta, which could affect the results. Previous research suggested that those who had been infected with COVID were less likely to catch other variants of the virus as well.
Omicron carries more mutations than delta and other variants, making it better at evading the body’s defenses. The findings add to the evidence suggesting that the virus is becoming less dangerous.
Real-world data from South Africa also suggested that death rates during the omicron wave were just a quarter of the levels seen in previous surges. Scientists behind the research said that it showed a “decoupling” of cases, hospitalizations and deaths compared to other variants.
Hospitalizations continue to rise in the US
Hospitalizations in the U.S. surged in the fall as the delta variant made its way in several states. There are over 70,000 individuals currently hospitalized with COVID in the country, up three percent over the past week.
The omicron variant, which is more contagious compared to others before, drove a surge in infections. The U.S. is currently reporting an average of more than 237,000 daily new cases for the seven-day period ending on December 27. This represents a 66 percent increase over the past week, according to analysis.
Despite the milder cases, people should not be complacent. Epidemiologists warned that even if omicron proves less severe, it could still overwhelm hospitals by spreading faster than delta.
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