South African hospital sees less severe illness, Omicron outbreak ends

Woman receives dose of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, as South Africa rolls out coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination to seniors at Munsieville Care for the Aged Center in l ‘outside Johannesburg, South Africa May 17, 2021 REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko

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January 7 (Reuters) – The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the results and that has not yet been certified by peer review.

South African hospital sees less severe illness with Omicron

Doctors in one of the towns where Omicron was first identified say the surge caused by the new variant has been marked by less severe disease than previous waves of the pandemic and there are clear signs that the Case rates and hospital admissions could drop over the next few weeks.

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At Steve Biko University Hospital in Tshwane City, doctors compared 466 infected patients admitted since mid-November 2021 to 3,976 patients admitted before that date. The death rate during the Omicron flare was 4.5%, up from 21.3% in the previous period, they reported in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. Omicron patients were discharged after an average of 4 days, compared to 8.8 days for patients with previous variants. At the height of the Omicron wave, the number of beds filled with infected patients was half that of the previous period, and 63% of Omicron patients were hospitalized for other reasons, with the virus only being detected by compulsory tests.

“The Omicron epidemic has spread and diminished … at an unprecedented rate, peaking in four weeks,” the researchers said. They noted that results may vary in countries with different population characteristics and levels of immunity to infection and vaccination. But if the pattern observed in South Africa “continues and repeats itself on a global scale … Omicron could be a harbinger of the end of the epidemic phase” of the health crisis.

Unique chains of molecules can predict the success of variants

Researchers believe they have discovered an important way to identify which variants of SARS-CoV-2 can spread.

Examining 9-unit chains of molecules called nucleotides – the building blocks of genes – they found that with the exception of Beta, which did not circulate widely outside of South Africa, each new variant had more than unique strings than the variant that immediately preceded it. The original, or wild, version of the virus had 45 so-called unique 9-seas, researchers reported Thursday on medRxiv before peer review. Alpha had 109 unique 9-seas, Beta 69, Gamma 122, and Delta 181. The currently dominant Omicron variant has 295.

Many of these stretches of altered polynucleotides have nothing to do with the peak the virus uses to enter cells, suggesting that researchers shouldn’t focus solely on the peak protein, said Venky Soundararajan of the Massachusetts-based data analytics company. The peak is the target of most COVID-19 vaccines and current antibody treatments.

Soundararajan said that a variant circulating in France, called the IHU, has more distinct 9-seas than Delta but has not been able to compete with Omicron. Because the IHU has not circulated much outside of France, he said, populations have not acquired immunity against it, and variants that have not yet emerged in other places may find it “useful” to develop some of the same 9-mer mutations. Vaccine makers should pay attention to the unique nucleotide signatures of the IHU, as there is a good chance that they will reappear in future variants, Soundararajan said.

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Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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