June 17, 2022 – The Omicron variant of the coronavirus carries about half the risk of a long COVID than the Delta variant, according to a new study published in The lancet.
At the same time, about 5% of people who contract Omicron continue to experience symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, headaches, heart problems, and other health problems for at least a month after contracting it. The study is believed to be one of the first large-scale reports on Omicron’s long-term risks.
“The basic question we’re trying to answer is, ‘Has COVID been this prevalent for a long time… in the Delta period? [as it is] in the omicron period?” Claire Steves, one of the study authors and a genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London, told NPR.
“Given the different variants, what is the risk of catching COVID for a long time?” she said.
Steves and colleagues have tracked thousands of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to determine the risks of a long COVID with different variants. They compared more than 56,000 people in the UK who received Omicron between December 2021 and March 2022 to more than 41,000 people in the UK who caught Delta between June 2021 and November 2021.
Patients tracked their symptoms using the COVID Symptom Study app. Those who caught Omicron were about half as likely as those who caught Delta to still have health issues a month later. Omicron’s chance of developing long COVID was 4.5% compared to Delta’s 10.8%.
The reduced risk is “great news,” Steves said, especially because Omicron is so contagious that many people became infected quickly. If the risk of contracting long-COVID was equal to or higher than the Delta variant, the number of people with long-COVID would have exploded, she said.
But the lower risk doesn’t mean people shouldn’t worry about long COVID, she warned.
“The caveat is that the Omicron variant has spread very quickly through our population and therefore affects a much larger number of people,” Steves said. “So, unfortunately, the absolute total number of people who are projected to be long-term ill with COVID is going to increase.”
The study didn’t address why Omicron carries a lower risk of long COVID, although Steves said it makes sense because the variant also tends to have a lower risk of making people seriously ill.
Long-time COVID experts told NPR that future studies should confirm the data in medical clinics and feed the results into public health measures.
“We say, you know, ‘You can take your masks off on planes. You no longer need to be vaccinated to enter a restaurant.” All of these policy decisions will increase the chances of people contracting COVID while still having a 5% chance of developing a serious chronic illness,” said David Putrino, PhD , who has long been treating COVID patients at Mount Sinai in New York, told NPR.
“That’s short-sighted and will create a lot of long-term disabilities that shouldn’t exist,” he said.