Today, Discovery Health, Vitality’s parent company and South Africa’s largest private health insurance administrator, released the results of the first at-scale analysis of Omicron’s real-world impact in South Africa. The study was based on over 200,000 positive COVID cases in South Africa, 41% from adults who had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Of the 200,000 cases, almost 80,000 were Omicron infections. The data for this study is from the first three weeks of the Omicron-driven wave in South Africa, and thus, is considered preliminary.
Given that the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa and is currently fueling South Africa’s fourth wave of COVID-19, Discovery Health had a social responsibility to inform the world of their insights on Omicron thus far.
Takeaway #1: The two-dose Pfizer vaccine offers significant protection against hospitalization.
Vaccinated individuals who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine have 70% protection against hospital admission. Those same individuals have 33% protection against infection, relative to the unvaccinated. So, while the protection against infection and hospitalization from Omicron is less than that from Delta (80% and 93%, respectively), fully vaccinated individuals still have very good protection. Further, protection against hospitalization is consistent in adults of all ages, with slightly lower protection in older adults (67% in those 60-69 years and 60% in those 70-79 years), and is consistent across a range of chronic illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Takeaway #2: The risk of reinfection with Omicron variant is significantly higher compared to prior variants.
Individuals who had previously been infected with a COVID infection during South Africa’s first wave have a 73% risk of reinfection with Omicron compared to those without prior documented infection. Those who were infected during the second wave (Beta variant) face a 60% relative risk of reinfection, while those who were infected during the third wave (Delta variant) face a 40% relative risk of reinfection.
Takeaway #3: The risk of severe disease and hospitalization in Omicron infection is significantly lower compared to prior variants.
While there has been a steep trajectory of new infections in South Africa, the trajectory for hospital admissions has been flatter, suggesting that disease is less severe. Compared to the first wave of infections in South Africa, individuals have a 29% lower hospital admission risk, and those who are hospitalized have a lower likelihood of being admitted to Intensive Care Units.
Takeaway #4: Omicron infection in children leads to higher hospitalization rates.
Discovery Health’s data show that children under age 18 years have a 20% higher risk of hospital admission for complications of COVID-19 when infected with the Omicron variant, particularly in children under 5 years. However, children continue to show a low incidence of severe complications and are 51% less likely to test positive for COVID-19 relative to adults. When children do require hospitalization for complications associated with COVID-19, the primary diagnoses are bronchiolitis and pneumonia, often with severe gastrointestinal symptoms and dehydration.
Takeaway #5: Vigilance and vaccination remain our primary means of overcoming the pandemic
Fortunately, the Pfizer vaccine continues to offer high levels of protection from severe COVID-19 illness and the importance of getting vaccinated is unquestionable. Other measures, such as social distancing, avoiding public gatherings, mask wearing and proper hygiene, should continue to be followed.
Lianne E. Jacobs, MPH, Health Communications Strategist, has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University. She is the only indoor cycling instructor who can’t ride a bike. She enjoys traveling the world, laughing at her own jokes, and tricking her husband into eating baked goods made with hidden vegetables.