British Columbia

Early data suggests Omicron cases could be milder, but take that with a grain of salt, experts say

Some of the earliest data from around the world has shown signs that many people infected with the Omicron variant ended up with milder symptoms. But Canadian experts agree it is too soon to assume the variant will affect everybody the same way.

Majority of first Omicron cases in U.S. brought cold-like symptoms

People seen wearing face masks in downtown Vancouver earlier this month. B.C.'s earliest data on the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus comes from an outbreak among young students at the University of Victoria. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Some of the earliest data from around the world suggests that many people infected with the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus ended up with milder symptoms.

Some have described the sickness as being more like a cold, while others skip typical COVID-19 symptoms entirely.

But Canadian experts agree it is too soon to assume the variant will affect everybody the same way once it spreads through the population.

"Do not assume yet that this is just a no-harm virus that we have circulating," said Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease physician and researcher with Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "It's not time for us to consider this the common cold."

They also caution against being too hung up on specific signs and symptoms — even if a case feels just like an awful cold, Omicron is still a highly transmissible variant with the potential to quadruple national case counts.

No hospitalizations from B.C. outbreak

Much, if not all, of British Columbia's earliest Omicron data comes from an outbreak among dozens of young students at the University of Victoria.

The local health authority said 104 of the 169 cases in the outbreak are Omicron. Sixty-five more are expected to be confirmed as the variant in coming days.

All of the cases to date have been mild.

"Of those individuals to date that we've been following that have been either fully vaccinated with two doses or a single dose, none of them have been hospitalized or had any severe consequences as a result of acquiring Omicron," Island Health's chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick told CBC on Monday.

LISTEN | COVID-19 cases have spiked to new highs in Island Health:

Omicron does not appear to be less severe than Delta, says U.K. epidemiologist

1 year ago
Duration 2:22
While some health officials have said Omicron seems milder than previous variants of the coronavirus, British epidemiologist, Dr. John Edmunds says there is no evidence of that, but vaccinations appear to blunt its effect.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Cold-like symptoms reported in U.S., Europe

Early data from other countries has been similar.

The majority of the first 43 Omicron cases in the U.S. brought cold-like symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote Friday.

"The commonly reported symptoms were cough, fatigue and congestion or runny nose," the report said.

Fewer people reported familiar COVID-19 symptoms like fever, shortness of breath or vomiting. Only three people said they'd lost their sense of taste or smell. 

Most of the cases in the European Union have also been mild or asymptomatic, according to a report Monday from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. A preliminary analysis from South Africa also said Omicron appears to be milder.

WATCH | No evidence Omicron is less severe than Delta, U.K. epidemiologist says:

COVID-19: What do we know about the severity of Omicron infections?

1 year ago
Duration 7:54
Infectious diseases specialists Dr. Susy Hota, Dr. Lynora Saxinger and Dr. Isaac Bogoch answer viewer questions about the Omicron variant, including what we know on the severity of infections, and what people should consider if they’ve recently received a booster shot and have travel plans.

3 key limitations

But there are three key caveats to the early data.

First, Omicron might seem mild because it's largely hitting younger people, the same age group already less likely to be hospitalized or end up with severe disease from COVID-19.

More than half of the first CDC cases were in people under 40. The vast majority of those at the University of Victoria are younger than 35.

"[The UVic findings] can't be generalized for the entire population," Stanwick said. "We don't know, for the vulnerable groups, how significant Omicron will be. Will it behave like it's been behaving with the younger people?"

Second, more people are likely to have some level of immunity at this stage of the pandemic — either through vaccination or a previous COVID-19 infection. 

"In terms of the severity of cases at the moment across Canada with this new variant, and in vaccinated people, we're still learning exactly whether or not this is as severe an illness as it was before," said Barrett, the physician from Nova Scotia.

"I would say the jury is still out for the next few weeks ... It's too early to make broad, sweeping assumptions."

LISTEN | Omicron primer with Dr. Lisa Barrett:

Third, there haven't been enough cases to properly represent entire populations. The European agency cautioned it would need hundreds more cases to make an accurate assessment.

"We should take all the early data with a giant grain of salt because it's early and it's going to change," said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto.

What is clear, though, is Omicron's potential to overwhelm hospitals, because it's highly contagious. More cases overall — even if it's just a small number of people ending up with severe disease — could still lead to a spike in hospitalizations.

"If cases start to rise uncontrolled in the environment around us, the risk of severe infection will increase just by virtue of numbers ... our health system may not be able to cope with that," said Dr. Susy Hota, another specialist with UHN.

The advice remains the same: continue physical distancing, washing your hands, wearing a well-fitting mask, opening windows to improve ventilation and getting your vaccines and booster when you can.

"Stay vigilant," Barrett said. 

WATCH | What do we know about the severity of the Omicron variant?

With files from All Points West, Information Morning - Cape Breton, CBC's The National and Reuters

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