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New Omicron data: variant is less severe, more resistant to Pfizer vaccine

Dec 14, 2021


South Africa’s largest private health insurer Discovery Health teamed up with the South African Medical Research Council to release new data on the Omicron variant Tuesday. South Africa was the first country to report the variant to the World Health Organization last month. According to the data, during the country’s current Omicron-fueled surge in cases:

  • The Pfizer vaccine is providing 70% protection against COVID-19-related hospitalization and 33% protection against COVID-19 infection.
  • For individuals who have had COVID-19 previously, the risk of reinfection with Omicron is significantly higher, relative to prior variants.
  • The risk of hospitalization among adults diagnosed with COVID-19 is 29% lower for the Omicron variant infection compared to South Africa’s first wave in mid-2020.
  • Children have a 20% higher risk of hospitalization.

“It’s important that I say they are experiencing very low test positivity rates relative to adults and in absolute terms, the admission of children to hospital remains very low,” Discovery Health CEO Dr. Ryan Noach said Tuesday. The video above shows him discussing the data. “There is no reason to panic in this regard.”

The new Omicron variant data are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed. However, they do line up with other early data about Omicron’s behavior, including that it seems to be more easily transmitted. The study also did not look at booster shots, which are not yet prevalent in South Africa. Data from elsewhere has indicated it improves protection from infection.

While the new data showed Pfizer’s vaccine was less effective against the Omicron variant than other variants, Pfizer now says its COVID-19 pill appears to be effective. The company announced the final results from a study of 2,246 adults who took the pill, known as Paxlovid. The full results confirmed the study’s early results showing the pill reduced hospitalizations and deaths by about 89% among high-risk adults when taken shortly after initial symptoms. Separate laboratory testing shows the drug retains its potency against the omicron variant.

“This news provides further corroboration that our oral antiviral candidate, if authorized or approved, could have a meaningful impact on the lives of many, as the data further support the efficacy of PAXLOVID in reducing hospitalization and death and show a substantial decrease in viral load,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a news release. “Emerging variants of concern, like Omicron, have exacerbated the need for accessible treatment options for those who contract the virus, and we are confident that, if authorized or approved, this potential treatment could be a critical tool to help quell the pandemic.”


Dr. Ryan Noach, CEO, Discovery Health: “In terms of the vaccine effectiveness of the double dose Pfizer/BioNTech regime, the vaccine effectiveness has reduced from 80 percent in the delta wave to 33 percent now in this omicron wave against COVID-19 infection. Quite a material reduction, but the vaccines were developed to prevent severe illness and death. And what is very encouraging is that the vaccine effectiveness of this double dose of Pfizer/BioNTech holds at 70 percent in the omicron wave against severe complications of COVID-19, which we measure by hospital admissions. So 70 percent vaccine effectiveness in mitigation of hospital admissions.”

“Children during this wave, as reported by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases here in South Africa, seem to be at 20 percent greater risk of hospitalization during the wave. It’s important that I say they are experiencing very low test positivity rates relative to adults and in absolute terms, the admission of children to hospital remains very low. And so there is no reason to panic in this regard.”

Dr. Ryan Noach, CEO, Discovery Health: “What is clear is that vaccinated individuals are experiencing milder infections in general, and that’s supported by the data shown by the 70 per cent effectiveness against severe illness. And also supported by anecdote, we’re hearing that it’s primarily the unvaccinated that are requiring admission and also that are requiring oxygen in hospital. That’s clear.”