Preliminary data published by Britain's public health agency suggests that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50% and 70% less likely to end up in hospital than those with the delta variant.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) cautioned that its analysis was "preliminary and highly uncertain" due to the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups.
Nevertheless, UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said it was "an encouraging early signal that people who contract the omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalization than those who contract other variants."
"However, it should be noted both that this is early data and more research is required to confirm these findings," she said.
The findings are consistent with recent studies from Imperial College London.
Research conducted in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, has also suggested omicron might be milder than first feared.
Transmission rates still cause concern
Scientists have warned that although omicron might be less severe, the fact it spreads so quickly could mean it will still overwhelm health systems faster than the delta variant.
The UKHSA also warned of reinfections with omicron, suggesting the variant can circumnavigate antibodies built up through either vaccination or among those who have previously contracted COVID-19.
Initial data showed 9.5% of omicron cases were among those who had already been infected with the coronavirus.
Omicron is rife in the UK, and COVID cases have surged by more than 50% in the last week.
Britain reported almost 120,000 cases on Thursday, a record-high since the virus first emerged there almost two years ago.
jsi/aw (AP, Reuters)