A standardised protocol for assessment of relative SARS-CoV-2 variant severity, applied to Omicron BA.1 compared to Delta variant severity risk in six European countries, October 2021 to February 2022
Several SARS-CoV-2 variants that evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic have appeared to differ in severity, based on analyses of single-country datasets. With decreased SARS-CoV-2 testing and sequencing, international collaborative studies will become increasingly important for timely assessment of the severity of newly emerged variants. The Joint WHO Regional Office for Europe and ECDC Infection Severity Working Group was formed to produce and pilot a standardised study protocol to estimate relative variant case-severity in settings with individual-level SARS-CoV-2 testing with data on infecting variant and COVID-19 outcome data during periods when two variants were co-circulating. To assess feasibility, the study protocol and its associated statistical analysis code was applied by local investigators in Denmark, England, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Scotland to assess the case-severity of Omicron BA.1 relative to Delta cases. After pooling estimates using meta-analysis methods (random effects estimates), the risk of hospital admission (adjusted hazard ratio [aHR]=0.41, 95% CI 0.31-0.54), ICU admission (aHR=0.12, 95% CI 0.05-0.27), and death (aHR=0.31, 95% CI 0.28-0.35) was lower for Omicron BA.1 compared to Delta cases. The aHRs varied by age group and vaccination status. In conclusion, this study has demonstrated the feasibility of conducting variant severity analyses in a multinational collaborative framework. The results add further evidence for the reduced severity of the Omicron BA.1 variant.