Dec 9, 2021 - Health

Emerging Omicron data offers glimmers of hope

Illustration of coronaviruses with radiating circles.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Preliminary studies suggest that two doses of existing coronavirus vaccines are significantly less effective against the Omicron variant, but booster shots confer much stronger immunity.

The big picture: Early South African hospitalization data also indicates that Omicron may cause milder disease than previous variants. If both of those signals continue to hold, an Omicron wave may not be as bad as feared.

Driving the news: Pfizer and BioNTech said yesterday that three doses of their vaccine effectively neutralizes the Omicron variant, at levels comparable to the what two doses offered against earlier variants.

  • If that is an indicator of real-world clinical outcomes, that's good news — it would mean the vaccines work incredibly well, especially against severe disease.
  • And even two doses may still offer strong protection against severe illness, if not from milder infections, the companies wrote in a press release.

The intrigue: Although Omicron is spreading rapidly around the world, there's a chance that it causes less severe disease than other variants — which would be welcome news for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

  • South African researchers have said that coronavirus patients showing up to the hospital are not as sick as the ones they've treated before, per the NYT, but this data too is still extremely preliminary.

What we're watching: It's too early to take either of these encouraging signs to the bank. There's still plenty of time for South African hospitalization data to take a dark turn, and researchers are still studying how well the vaccines work against the variant in the real world.

  • But for now, there's at least hope that we've avoided the worst-case scenarios.
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