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• Experts say early indications are that the omicron variant might result in milder illness, but they also caution that more information is still needed.
There’s a lot that scientists still don’t know about the variant that can only be learned with time and further research.
But we spotted one lengthy and widely shared Facebook post that warned about omicron’s dangers and included some very specific data points we had not seen before. Among them: "The toxicity of COVID-Omicron is 5 times higher than that of the Delta variant, and the mortality rate is also higher than that of Delta," the Dec. 4 post said.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
It’s not clear where this data originated. We saw the same post being shared publicly by others as early as Dec. 3 with no source information. "Toxicity" is not a commonly referenced measure of COVID-19 variants, so it’s unclear what point the speaker was trying to make. And there is no evidence so far to support the claim that the mortality rate for omicron is higher than delta.
Early indications suggest that omicron might result in milder illness. But it also appears to be highly transmissible. Because hospitalizations and deaths usually lag outbreaks of cases, experts still need time to study the trends.
On whether the variant could be less severe, Dr. Emily S. Gurley, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times, "It would not be shocking if that’s true, but I’m not sure we can conclude that yet."
Omicron was first identified by researchers in South Africa, who reported it to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. The WHO designated it as a variant of concern two days later, citing its large number of mutations; evidence of an increased risk of COVID-19 reinfection with the variant; and the number of cases that were appearing in South Africa. The omicron variant has since been identified in at least 50 countries, including the United States.
In a preliminary study published Dec. 2 that has not been peer-reviewed, scientists in South Africa said omicron was at least three times more likely to cause reinfection than previous coronavirus variants beta and delta. And newer studies, including from Pfizer and BioNTech, suggest omicron can partially dodge immune defenses granted by vaccines, which seems to be strengthening the case for boosters, including the possibility of a fourth shot.
As far as the harshness of illness goes, Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, on Dec. 5 said that further study is needed before anything definitive can be determined. "Thus far," he said on CNN’s State of the Union show, it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it."
In South Africa, hospital researchers said current patients are experiencing milder illness than those who had other variants of the virus, including delta. One doctor said symptoms of omicron that she has witnessed include fatigue and a scratchy throat, but no cough.
And a very small study in South Africa of 42 patients admitted to a hospital between Nov. 14 and 29 showed that most didn’t need oxygen, and many had initially come to the hospital seeking treatment for other illnesses, not COVID-19. The study has not been peer-reviewed, and the researchers did not know how many of the COVID-19 patients were infected with the omicron variant, "though the government reported last week that it already accounted for three-quarters of virus samples in South Africa," the New York Times reported.
Meanwhile, Harvard experts warned Dec. 7 that omicron could overtake delta as the dominant strain within a matter of weeks because of its transmissibility. That remains difficult to confirm until more information is available because conditions vary in each country, and the U.S. has much higher vaccination rates than South Africa.
A Facebook post says, "The toxicity of COVID-Omicron is 5 times higher than that of the delta variant, and the mortality rate is also higher than that of Delta."
It’s not clear where these data points originate and we find no evidence of them in available research to date.
Early evidence indicates omicron might result in milder illness. But research has found it is highly transmissible, can cause reinfection at a rate of at least three times higher than prior COVID-19 variants and has the power to elude some of the protections vaccines give. But more information is still needed, in part because hospitalizations and deaths usually lag outbreaks of cases.
That said, there is nothing in the research so far that indicates the data reported in this post is accurate. We rate it False.
Associated Press, "Fauci says early reports encouraging about omicron variant," Dec. 6, 2021
Boston 25 News, "Harvard researcher bracing for big variant surge," Dec. 7, 2021
Facebook post, Dec. 4, 2021
Global News, "Omicron symptoms ‘totally different’ from Delta COVID-19 variant: South African doctor," Dec. 7, 2021
Japan Times, "Initial hospital data in omicron epicenter shows milder disease," Dec. 6, 2021
NBC New York, "Omicron Variant Has ‘Substantial Ability' to Evade Natural Immunity, Scientists Say," Dec. 3, 2021
New York Times, "Omicron Is Fast Moving, but Perhaps Less Severe, Early Reports Suggest," Dec. 6, 2021
NPR, "New evidence shows omicron likely spreads twice as fast as delta in South Africa," Dec. 3, 2021
Roll Call, "Omicron could overtake delta within weeks, experts say," Dec. 7, 2021
Transcripts, "State of the Union," Dec. 5, 2021
Washington Post, Omicron coronavirus variant three times more likely to cause reinfection than delta, S. Africa study says, Dec. 3, 2021
World Health Organization, "Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern," Nov. 26, 2021
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