Does Omicron affect your lungs?
The variant has been linked to the rise in covid-19 case numbers but new studies suggest that it may lead to less serious illness amongst the vaccinated.
In recent months the Omicron variant has sparked a surge of covid-19 cases in the United States which saw the nation surpass the one million mark for daily coronavirus cases for the first time.
The Omicron variant is known to be more infectious than previous iterations of the virus and has the ability to evade vaccines more effectively too. However a number of academic studies into the dangerous variant have suggested that it attacks the human body in a different way to the predecessors.
Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, said: “The result of all the mutations that make Omicron different from previous variants is that it may have altered its ability to infect different sorts of cells.”
He continued: “It looks to be more able to infect the upper respiratory tract – cells in the throat. So it would multiply in cells there more readily than in cells deep in the lung. This is really preliminary but the studies point in the same direction.”
Studies suggest Omicron is less likely to damage lungs
Six studies into Omicron published in recent weeks found that the variant is less likely to damage lungs than previous variants like Delta. In contrast Omicron tends to replicate more in the throat, offering a possible explanation of why it differs from other strains.
The fact that it replicates more readily in the throat could explain why it is so transmissible, with virus particles much closer to the mouth and nose and therefore easier to pass on to someone in close proximity.
Numerous reports have found that it is less likely to cause severe illness and suggested that it could be due to the high number of mutations found in Omicron. Laboratory studies at the Neyts Lab at Leuven University in Belgium found that hamsters infected with Omicron experienced a lower viral load in the lungs that other variants.
This appears to be collaborated by a study from South Africa which found that saliva samples were better than nasal swabs at detecting Omicron in patients.
However Prof Lawrence Young of the University of Warwick reiterated that it was simply “a small study on acutely symptomatic, non-hospitalised patients,” adding, “I don’t think this study is significant enough to conclude anything about the behaviour of Omicron.”
Scientists have already observed a decrease in hospitalisation
While the number of daily covid-19 cases has risen to staggering levels, the number of people admitted to hospital has not risen at the same rate. This has led some to question whether Omicron is as deadly as previous variants.
Earlier this month, WebMD shared a new study into the variant which found that vaccinated people infected with Omicron are one-third as likely to require hospitalisation as those who are infected with Delta.
However it reiterates that, because Omicron is able to evade vaccines, it should not be underestimated or its dangerousness be downplayed. In clinical trials in the United Kingdom “all covid-19 vaccines continued to be less effective against symptomatic infection from Omicron compared with Delta.”