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Omicron variant 'almost certainly' less severe than delta, Fauci says

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday that early indications suggest the omicron COVID-19 variant is potentially milder than previous strains. 

While much is still unknown about omicron, Fauci told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) it “almost certainly is not more severe” than the delta variant. 

“There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe, because when you look at some of the cohorts that are being followed in South Africa, the ratio between the number of infections and the number of hospitalizations seems to be less than with delta,” he said, noting that populations being followed had skewed young and were less likely to be hospitalized due to the disease.

Omicron cases have been confirmed in at least nine African countries – and more than 50 countries around the world – with some officials also reporting that initial cases appear to be mild. A preliminary study from scientists in South Africa, where daily cases of the omicron strain have spiked since mid-November, said that the variant was more likely to cause re-infections than previous variants. The study had yet to be peer reviewed at the time of release.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. 
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Fauci explained that omicron, or the “variant of concern,” is “clearly highly transmissible.” Still, the delta variant accounts for more than 99% of cases in the U.S., according to public health leaders. 

“The worst-case scenario is that it is not only highly transmissible, but it also causes severe disease and then you have another wave of infections that are not necessarily blunted by the vaccine or by people’s prior infections,” Fauci said. 

Although a more transmissible virus that doesn’t cause more severe illness would be the “best-case scenario” according to Fauci, time and additional cases are necessary to determine the level of severity. 

He told AFP that while he does not believe that will come to pass, “you never know.”

Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said that further laboratory experiments testing the potency of antibodies from current vaccines against omicron are expected in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that more robust protection was offered with a booster shot of the companies’ vaccine. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla also said Wednesday that the third dose would be enough to “maintain protection” against omicron and that there was still “tremendous value” for those who have only gotten one or two doses of the vaccine.

“There is tremendous value compared to if you have only one or if you don’t have any. Tremendous value. It might not be enough on itself, but we are waiting to see,” he told NBC’s “Today” show. “So, you may need to go to get the third booster faster and that’s something that they have … considered very carefully and make their recommendations. But, clearly, having two doses compared to nothing protects you way better than having nothing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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