By Claire Gordon •
Published: 02 Dec 2021 • 21:55
The first real-world study of the effects of the new Omicron variant has pointed to the mutation having a ‘substantial’ ability to evade previous infection antibodies, meaning reinfection is likely for most people. The finding suggests large waves of new infections should be expected even in populations with high levels of antibodies.
Researchers at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) warn their finding has important public health implications. They add: “Urgent questions remain regarding whether Omicron is also able to evade vaccine-induced immunity and the potential implications of reduced immunity to infection on protection against severe disease and death.”
Almost 2.8 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 were studied from March 2020 onwards to create the report, and it was found 35,670 were reinfections. The Beta and Delta waves had a lower risk of reinfection than the original Wuhan strain of the virus. But significantly they found the risk of reinfection in the current Omicron wave is 2.4 times higher than in the first wave.
The results have yet to be peer-reviewed but the researchers say: “We find evidence of a substantial and ongoing increase in the risk of reinfection that is temporally consistent with the timing of the emergence of the Omicron variant in South Africa, suggesting that its selection advantage is at least partially driven by an increased ability to infect previously infected individuals.
“Immune escape from previous infection antibodies, whether or not Omicron can also evade vaccine-derived immunity, has important implications for public health globally.”
Although only around a quarter of the population in South Africa is fully vaccinated, immunity from natural infection is high because the country has had several large waves of COVID.
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