By Karen Weintraub &Elizabeth Weise

  • The new study from South Africa’s largest private health insurer shows that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is just 33% protective against omicron.
  • Full vaccination against COVID-19 continues to provide 70% protection against severe disease, according to the Discovery Health study.
  • Omicron also appears to be able to reinfect people who had an earlier disease variant, with those infected longer ago at higher risk of reinfection.

The new omicron variant of the coronavirus is substantially more contagious and reduces the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, a study from South Africa released Tuesday found.

Even though the variant so far seems to produce mostly mild disease, world health leaders warned it could bring a wave of illness that crushes health systems

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

“We underestimate this virus at our peril,” he said in a news conference Tuesday from Geneva. “Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

Early data from South Africa appears to show that people who are fully vaccinated are still largely protected against severe disease, according to early data released Tuesday by Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer.

The omicron variant, which was first identified in southern Africa, appears poised to take over the world, as delta did before it. Omicron accounts for 90% of COVID-19 cases in South Africa and is a growing problem in Europe

It has now been found in 77 countries, Ghebreyesus said. It has been seen in at least 30 U.S. states, though the delta variant still dominates the American outbreak.

Formally identified the day before Thanksgiving, information on omicron’s characteristics – including how contagious and dangerous it may be – are just emerging.

The new study from Discovery Health shows that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which provided more than 90% protection against the original virus, is only 33% protective against omicron infection.

Full vaccination continues to provide 70% protection against severe disease, which seemed to hold up across high-risk groups, though it declined somewhat in people over 60 and even more in those over 70. 

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