RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is news this morning. The Food and Drug Administration has announced it is authorizing COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to give its final approval before kids under 5 can start getting vaccinated, but that approval is expected within days. Also out today, a new study showing that the omicron variant appears to be much less likely than delta to cause long COVID. It's the first large study published about the persistent health risks posed by omicron. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us with details. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So on the face of it, it sounds reassuring since so many of the cases we're seeing right now are omicron. Explain the evidence here.
STEIN: Well, researchers at King's College London have been tracking thousands of people who test positive for the coronavirus throughout the pandemic to try to determine the risk of long COVID from all the different variants that come along. Here's Claire Steves from King's College.
CLAIRE STEVES: The basic question that we were trying to answer is, is long COVID as common as it is in the delta period in the omicron period? So what's the risk of going on to get long COVID, given the different variants?
STEIN: So in this case, the researchers compared more than 56,000 people who caught omicron with more than 41,000 who caught delta and kept track of their symptoms using a special app. They found a big difference. Those who got infected with omicron were about half as likely as those who had gotten delta to still be experiencing fatigue, headaches, brain fog, heart problems, or other health issues for at least four weeks after they got infected. It's especially great news because omicron is so contagious. It infected an incredible number of people incredibly quickly. So if the risk had been the same or higher, the number of people ending up with long COVID would have exploded.
MARTIN: Right. So does that mean people who have had omicron can just, like, wipe their hands of it and say, hey, I don't have to worry about long-term symptoms?
STEIN: Well, you know, unfortunately, not at all. According to this research, the chances of getting long COVID from omicron is almost 5% compared to almost 11% from delta. So while the risk appears to be far lower, it's far from zero. And because so many people are catching omicron, that means even more people are being left struggling with long COVID. Again, Claire Steves.
STEVES: While the risk of long COVID is lower, the numbers of people that are affected by long COVID will actually go up rather than go down, despite the fact that there is a reduction in risk. So it's certainly not a time for us to reduce services for long COVID because it's not a problem, unfortunately, that's going away.
STEIN: And, you know, Rachel, who knows what kind of risk for long COVID the next variant might pose?
MARTIN: Right. Nevertheless, it does indicate that the risk that any individual person who gets omicron will end up with long COVID - that that is lower. So do we know why that is the case?
STEIN: Yeah, well, you know, this study didn't directly address that. But Steves and others say it makes sense that omicron would be less likely to cause long-term health problems because omicron doesn't tend to make people as sick as delta.
STEVES: Because of that lesser severity of disease and also because it seems to be a bit more superficial in terms of the disease, that it's probably getting into our bodies less, it's less affecting us in terms of severity of our immune response. And therefore, that's leading to less likelihood of long COVID.
STEIN: And it's not because people in the study were vaccinated.
MARTIN: OK. So you've spoken with a range of other COVID researchers about this particular study and this news. Give us a sense of their response.
STEIN: They're saying it's, you know, definitely good news. Here's Dr. Walter Koroshetz at the National Institutes of Health.
WALTER KOROSHETZ: The first thing that people worry about is, are they going to get really sick or potentially die? What we know from omicron is that that's less likely to happen than it was in the other variants. So if I get through it, what are my chances of having persistent symptoms? And the news from this data is that that's substantially decreased with omicron, so I think that's comforting news.
STEIN: But, you know, I've talked to other researchers who say, you know, that it's still alarming because this study shows that even vaccinated can still develop long COVID from omicron. So they hope that the findings will prompt more people to keep wearing masks, taking other precautions to protect themselves from COVID and long COVID.
MARTIN: All right, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob. We appreciate your reporting on this.
STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.