On Nov. 28, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement advising the world about a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, called omicron. By that time, the agency had dubbed the strain a “variant of concern” because of its contagiousness, and cases were popping up in countries all over the world, including China, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
The advisory, which is available on the WHO’s website, said researchers were working to determine exactly how fast omicron was spreading and whether infected patients faced a higher risk of severe disease compared to other versions of the coronavirus. That remained the case, as of this writing about two weeks later.
Also, within that portion of the statement outlining the strain’s potential threat to global health, the WHO wrote the following: “To date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported.”
See that portion of the technical brief below:
On Dec. 9, we contacted the global health agency to see whether that finding was still accurate, or whether anyone who had tested positive for omicron had died since the Nov. 28 technical brief. We are waiting for a response, and we will update this report accordingly.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provided recent information in an interview with The Associated Press (AP) that published Dec. 8.
She said, in the U.S. alone, more than 40 people were infected by the coronavirus strain, and more than three-quarters of them were vaccinated against COVID-19.
Additionally, Walensky said “the disease is mild” in almost all of the detected cases so far, with reported symptoms mainly cough, congestion, and fatigue. Next, citing CDC officials, the Dec. 8 AP story said: “One person was hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.”
We reached out to the author of the story, AP medical reporter Mike Stobbe, to clarify whether that statement about “no deaths” referred to U.S. cases exclusively — or whether there had been zero fatalities worldwide. He told us via email that he and Walensky were talking about patients in America only.
Next, we reached out to the CDC to see if it had any fatality data for us consider. We will update this report when, or if, we receive a response.
Considering that unanswered request, as well as our outstanding inquiry with the WHO, research into this claim remains in progress.
All of that said, epidemiologists’ work to measure the variant’s impact on populations globally (which is research that would answer the question to this report: whether any omicron patients had died) remained ongoing as of this report. If any coronavirus patient who was infected by the strain had indeed died in early December, it would take days — if not weeks — for medical examiners, doctors, and health officials to definitively conclude that the variant led to their death, and then more time to update public reporting systems accordingly.
Aside from omicron’s impact on people’s immune systems so far, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said researchers are working to track the variant’s contagiousness. For instance, preliminary research from South Africa suggested that anyone who’s already had COVID-19 may face higher risk of reinfection with omicron circulating.
However, speaking to reporters on Dec. 8, Ghebreyesus stressed ongoing studies need to conclude before scientists consider those findings definitive.
Here’s what he said at that news conference, via a transcript on the WHO’s website:
The Omicron variant has now been reported in 57 countries, and we expect that number to continue growing.
Certain features of Omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic.
Exactly what that impact will be is still difficult to know.
We are now starting to see a consistent picture of rapid increase in transmission, although for now the exact rate of increase relative to other variants remains difficult to quantify. […]
Emerging data from South Africa suggest increased risk of re-infection with Omicron, but more data are needed to draw firmer conclusions.
There is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta, but again, it’s still too early to be definitive. […]
To help us build a clearer picture of the severity and symptoms of disease caused by Omicron, we are calling for more countries to submit more data to our Clinical Data Platform, using an updated case reporting form available on our website.
New data are emerging every day, but scientists need time to complete studies and interpret the results. We must be careful about drawing firm conclusions until we have a more complete picture.
Even though very limited data exists to show omicron’s toll, public health officials say COVID-19 vaccinations are communities’ best defense to prevent the variant’s spread and keep emergency health care systems functioning efficiently. As the University of Missouri Health Care explains on its website:
The best way to stop viruses from mutating is to slow their spread, and the best way to slow their spread is through vaccination. Even if the omicron variant proves more contagious, scientists are confident the existing vaccines will continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
And there’s another bright spot: Scientists are learning more about booster shots, and it appears the booster does more than just “top off” your antibody levels. It might even help broaden your defenses in a way that offers protection against omicron and future variants.
CDC. ‘Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know’. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Dec. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html.
The Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know. https://www.muhealth.org/our-stories/omicron-variant-what-you-need-know. Accessed 8 Dec. 2021.
‘Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Official’. The White House, 7 Dec. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/12/07/press-briefing-by-white-house-covid-19-response-team-and-public-health-official-2/.
Enhancing Readiness for Omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical Brief and Priority Actions for Member States. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/enhancing-readiness-for-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-technical-brief-and-priority-actions-for-member-states. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021.
WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19 – 8 December 2021. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—8-december-2021. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021.
‘The AP Interview: CDC Chief Says Omicron Mostly Mild so Far’. AP NEWS, 8 Dec. 2021, https://apnews.com/article/ap-interview-coronavirus-omicron-rochelle-walensky-83c6607d1809a922ae0f892e22a5377f.