While Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed on Wednesday to two new studies showing that the hypercontagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus is less deadly than the Delta variant, he cautioned against drawing the conclusion that the data might be a sign that the pandemic was drawing to a close.
At a briefing by the White House COVID-19 response team, Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, was asked about the belief among some South Korean health officials that Omicron was a blessing in disguise given its apparent heightened degree of transmissibility and diminished overall severity.
“I would hate to say a ‘blessing in disguise.’” Fauci replied. “I never thought of a virus that can infect and kill people as a blessing in any way. But if you’re talking about would it be preferable to have Omicron be totally pervasive and be a relatively low degree of severity, yes, obviously that would be preferable. But it’s dangerous business to be able to rely on what you perceive as a lower degree of severity.”
The latest on the Omicron variant
Earlier in the briefing, Fauci discussed two new studies that showed that Omicron appears to result in less serious illness than those infected by the Delta variant.
“It appears that in the context of South Africa, there is a decrease in the severity compared to Delta, both in the relationship in the ratio between hospitalizations and the number of infections, the durations of hospital stays and the need for supplemental oxygen therapy,” Fauci said of findings from researchers in South Africa, where Omicron was first discovered.
Fauci then referenced the findings of a separate study conducted by researchers in Scotland that “appears to validate and verify the data that are in South Africa.”
“This is good news. However, we must wait to see what happens in our own population, which has its own demographic considerations,” Fauci added. “I would point out that even if you have a diminution in severity, if you have a much larger number of individual cases, the fact that you have so many more cases might actually obviate the effect of it being less severe.”
Omicron now accounts for more than 73 percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the briefing, and cases nationwide have increased by 25 percent over the past week. Deaths from the disease caused by exposure to the coronavirus were up 3.5 percent over the prior week, though those fatalities were believed by many experts to have been from people who had contracted the Delta strain.
If the affects of Omicron can be controlled through vaccination, boosters and antiviral drugs like the Pfizer pill approved on Thursday, this variant may prove manageable and ultimately less deadly than those that preceded it. Yet with Omicron currently racing across the globe, health officials have not yet begun celebrating.
Fauci acknowledged the premise that diminished health risks from Omicron could, if the data confirms it, signal a welcome development in the pandemic. Still, with different strains of the virus continuing to circulate widely, further mutations are likely, which may be why Fauci hedged on declaring that that end of the pandemic was in sight.
“It’s conceivable, but you don’t want to count on it,” Fauci said on the conclusion being drawn about the findings. “You don’t want to count on anything when you’re dealing with a virus that has fooled us so many times before.”