On November 30, the North Korean state news agency Rodong announced new public health measures in response to the emergence of the new omicron coronavirus variant.
“To cope with the rapid spread of the new variant worldwide, the central emergency epidemic prevention unit is putting all efforts to thoroughly ensuring the perfect state emergency epidemic prevention system,” Rodong reported.
“A new COVID-19 variant virus which is five times stronger than delta virus appeared in the world, arousing serious concerns.”
That claim of potency is misleading.
To the date there is no evidence to conclude that omicron is more virulent compared to other variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus behind the pandemic, including the widespread delta bug.
The virus has been mutating since it was discovered in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, giving rise to some two dozen mutations known variants. The World Health Organization (WHO) has monitored most of these and concluded that they pose a low risk to public health.
Mutations believed to pose risks to public safety are designated as Variants of Concern (VOC). Although the VOCs differ genetically, they share characteristics that enhance their ability to invade human cells and increase their transmissibility and virulence. VOCs have a higher potential to cause severe symptoms or death and are more vaccine resistant.
Omicron is the most recently discovered mutation and one of five variants the WHO has designated as a VOC. The others are the alpha, beta, gamma and delta variants – they are all named sequentially after the letters of the Greek alphabet.
North Korea’s assertion that omicron is “five times stronger than delta” can’t be verified due to the lack of data. Among the other VOCs, delta is the most infectious and causes the most severe illness, according to the WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Omicron does have the highest number of genetic mutations among the known SARS-CoV-2 variants (some 50), and it has been rapidly spreading around the world. So far, though, there is insufficient data to determine whether it is more dangerous than the other VOCs.
Moreover, there is an emerging, though preliminary, scientific consensus that omicron may not be as bad as the other VOCs, including delta.
On November 28, Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first identified omicron, told the BBC that patients showed “extremely mild symptoms.”
On December 3, the South African Medical Research Council released a preliminary clinical profile of omicron.
Data collected from the Tshwane District hospital, where 166 patients infected with the omicron variant were monitored between November 27 and December 3, showed “that the majority of patients in the COVID wards have not been oxygen dependent.”
“A key question regarding the new omicron outbreak is whether disease severity is similar, milder or more severe than with the other variants, given the large number of omicron mutations. The best indicator of disease severity is measured by the in-hospital death rate,” the South African Medical Research Council report stated.
The death rate in the last two weeks (November 27 -December 3) fell to 6.6% from 17% in the Tshwane District hospital and 23% countrywide compared to previous 18 months, and there were no COVID-19-related deaths in the pediatric ward, the report said.
Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called the South African report “encouraging.”
“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci told CNN on December 4. “But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to delta.”
North Korea, which recently reported to the WHO that the country remains coronavirus-free, has not vaccinated people against COVID-19. The WHO’s COVAX program has allocated nearly 5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for North Korea, no date has been set to transfer them.