Since hitting headlines in November, the Omicron COVID-19 variant has hurt economies, ruined holidays and ruined the holiday season, but scientists say there may be a golden edge in the fast-paced version of the virus.
- Only 15 vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with Omicron were enrolled in the South African-based study
- The research team tested how well the participants’ antibodies neutralized the Omicron and Delta versions of COVID-19 while having symptoms, and then again two weeks later
- The results showed that participants developed an antibody response to Omicron that increased 14-fold over the two weeks and their ability to neutralize the Delta variant increased more than four-fold
Research conducted in a laboratory in South Africa suggests that Omicron may protect the people it infects against the more serious Delta variant.
If it turns out to be true, it could mean that Omicron will have the ability to displace Delta.
“Such a result could have positive implications in terms of reducing the COVID-19 burden of serious illness,” the authors of the study said.
The study – led by researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban – has not yet been peer-reviewed, but epidemiologist Catherine Bennett of Deakin University said the potential was promising.
Professor Bennett said she and others in her field had wondered if Omicron could offer protection against other variants.
“It was a hope,” she said.
‘We must be aware that this study was small’
Only 15 vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals infected with Omicron participated in the study.
In a laboratory, the research team tested how well the participants’ antibodies neutralized the Omicron and Delta versions while they had symptoms, and then again two weeks later.
The results of their study showed that participants developed an antibody response to Omicron, which increased 14-fold over the two weeks.
They also noted that their ability to neutralize the Delta variant increased more than four times.
What the study also showed was that antibodies from vaccinated participants were better able to control the Delta variant, while antibodies from unvaccinated participants were more variable.
“We need to be aware that this study was small,” Professor Bennett said.
She also said that South Africa’s high incidence of Delta infections raised questions about the results.
In her opinion, it was unclear whether participants’ antibodies were able to neutralize the Delta variant because they had been exposed to the former or because they had recently been exposed to Omicron.
Omicron infection could protect against severe Delta disease
After the Delta variant broke out in South Africa, the country registered more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases a day during the peak of its third wave of infections.
The daily rate of new infections reached similar heights after Omicron was first discovered in South Africa in November, but after peaking just before Christmas, the rate of infection has dropped sharply to between 3,000 and 5,000 new cases a day.
The world has been following South Africa’s experience with Omicron closely. Its short wave of infections and now indications that Omicron may be able to displace Delta are seen as positive signs.
Early in South Africa’s experience with Omicron, it became clear that the variant was capable of re-infecting humans who had already been infected with Delta.
The authors of the new study now believe that it will not happen the other way around.
Professor Bennett said the research suggested that instead of Omicron causing concern about reinfections, it may have the positive effect of preventing a turn back to the more severe Delta variant.
She also pointed out another benefit of the fact that if unvaccinated people become infected with Omicron, it can protect them from developing the serious illness caused by an Delta infection.
“We do not want anyone to have an infection if they can avoid it, but it can mean they can avoid landing in the hospital,” she said.
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