In-Depth: Omicron variant leads to reinfection 16 times more than delta

Posted at 6:01 AM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 10:28:01-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Experts say the coronavirus is becoming more contagious and dangerous as it mutates.

"It's learning to evade our pre-existing immune responses," says Professor Sumit Chanda from the Scripps Research Institute.

He looks at it from an evolutionary angle, seeing the virus as a living creature whose only goal is to replicate and spread. With omicron, Chanda says COVID-19 is doing that more efficiently than ever.

"The transmissibility of omicron is fairly unprecedented, especially compared to the previous variants," says Chanda. "It wasn't used to replicating in humans, and now it's optimized itself."

New data from the United Kingdom shows that is true even among people with some level of immunity.

According to a study done by the University of Oxford, the University of Manchester, and the UK Health Security Agency, the risk of reinfection since the omicron variant appeared is 16 times higher than during the delta wave. It also found unvaccinated people are twice as likely to get reinfected as people who have received their shots.

"Essentially, the risks are higher. The stakes are higher when it comes to omicron," says Dr. Abisola Olulade from Sharp Rees-Stealy Family Medicine.

Dr. Olulade says the study shows that natural infection is a "risky" way to protect against the virus.

"You're risking long-term COVID," she says. "You're risking all these other things that can cause problems that are debilitating for a lot of people."

The study also found that omicron comes with milder symptoms. There was a striking drop in the number of people who tested positive that also reported a loss of taste and smell. Fewer people also reported fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, headache, and muscle pain.

While that sounds like good news, Professor Chanda says it's a sign of the virus getting smarter.

"If I give you symptoms, or if I put you in the hospital, that's going to limit the number of people you're going to (encounter) and infect from a viruses perspective," Professor Chanda says. "I think it's kind of changing its way so it can be more transmissible."

But while omicron may be better at infections, doctors say the vaccines still work. They point out that the vaccines weren't designed to prevent transmission. They were created in order to avoid hospitalizations and deaths. In that sense, they've been wildly successful.

In San Diego County, where more than 79% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, the most recent data shows the hospitalization rate is four times higher for unvaccinated people than for those who are fully vaccinated. The death rate is eight times higher.

"All of this, of course, tells us that the best way to get protected is by vaccination," says Dr. Olulade. "Vaccination is always going to be the safest way to get protected from this virus."

"Viruses change," adds Professor Chanda. "But, you know, that's just part of the cat and mouse game that we're playing with it. Eventually, we will be able to keep up with the virus."