Can the Omicron variant of covid-19 cause long-term symptoms?
Despite reports that Omicron is causing less severe symptoms health officials warn that it can still cause severe cases and have long-term health impacts.
The fast-spreading covid-19 Omicron variant has pushed new infection rates sky-high leaving researchers scrambling to unlock its secrets. So far, evidence suggests that the strain that was first discovered in mid-November causes less severe illness than the Delta variant, but it is still dangerous.
Much of the knowledge on Omicron has come from observations of those who have been infected but there are still no scientific studies. Although the virus behaves somewhat differently to prior covid-19 variants, health experts warn that people should assume that Omicron too can cause long covid until proven otherwise.
Omicron is the fastest spreading variant yet
The first case of someone in the US infected with the Omicron variant appeared at the beginning of December and the highly transmissible strain in just four weeks became the dominant variant. Dr Stephen Parodi, associate executive director at The Permanente Medical Group and infectious disease physician told the AMA that Omicron is estimated to be up to “two times more transmissible than Delta,” and four times more than strains circulating at the beginning of the pandemic. It has been apt at reinfecting those who have previously had covid-19 and infecting even those who have received a third dose of vaccine.
The time it takes for symptoms of covid-19 infection from the Omicron variant to manifest “seems to be lower, around two to three days after exposure to developing symptoms,” Dr Parodi said as opposed to as many as 14 days with previous strains. Fortunately, “many of the people who are vaccinated or boosted are essentially reporting either very few to no symptoms, or they're basically saying it feels like a common cold,” he said.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
Preliminary data shows that Omicron manifests itself in similar fashion to prior covid-19 strains, as well as the flu, with a scratchy or sore throat, a dry cough along with nasal congestion and runny nose. It appears that Omicron is settling higher up in the respiratory tract and not getting deep into the lungs.
Those infected also report fatigue and tiredness and muscle pain, as well as headache. Fewer patients say that they have lost their sense of taste or smell. Andrew Pekosz, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told The New York Times that because of this people are reporting more cases of nausea and dizziness along with other milder symptoms.
No data available on potential long-term effects from Omicron
A study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that over 40 percent of covid-19 survivors across the world have or had long-term effects after recovering. Often referred to as “long covid” this is when patients experience new or persistent symptoms that occur four or more weeks after infection. Of those who were hospitalized for covid-19, more than 87 percent had at least one persistent symptom around 60 days on average after symptom onset.
Hospitals are being pushed to their limits as Omicron tears through the population filling up beds while at the same time putting medical staff on the side-lines. Those that have been vaccinated are largely avoiding hospitalization, but that isn’t the case for the unvaccinated. Dr Walensky, Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at the end of December “If you are unvaccinated, you are 10 times more likely to be a case and 20 times more likely to be a fatality, [and] you are 17 times more likely to be in the hospital,” as compared to those who have received a booster dose.
Akiko Iwasaki, who studies viral immunology at Yale University told Reuters "People who underestimate Omicron as 'mild' are putting themselves at risk of debilitating disease that can linger for months or years."