In the first two weeks after the omicron variant was first detected in late November 2021, reports claimed no confirmed omicron cases had resulted in death. Snopes initially confirmed this as true, via data from the World Health Organization (WHO). Then, three days later, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters, and the UK Health Security Agency confirmed, that at least one person who tested positive for the variant had died. As of Dec. 18, 2021, that number had risen to 14. There will be no further updates to this fact check.
On Dec. 13, 2021, multiple reputable news organizations reported that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at least one person who tested positive with a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, called omicron, in the United Kingdom had died. If true, that fatality would mark the first publicly-documented fatality involving the coronavirus strain.
Johnson reportedly made the comment while visiting a vaccination clinic in west London. The BBC published around 1 p.m. (EST):
At least one person in the UK has died with the Omicron coronavirus variant, the prime minister has said.
Boris Johnson said the new variant was also resulting in hospital admissions and the "best thing" people could do was get their booster jab.
Snopes reached out to Johnson's communication team asking for more information about the purported fatality, including whether the person had underlying health conditions and where they died. We have not received answers to those questions, but we will update this report when, or if, that changes.
Next, Snopes contacted Public Health England to see if its coronavirus data substantiated Johnson's remark. A spokesperson referred us to a government web page in which the UK Health Security Agency said of omicron infections so far: "One individual diagnosed in hospital has sadly died."
Considering that evidence, we rated this claim "False" — it was erroneous to say no one who tested positive for omicron had died, as of Dec. 13. (Given that the original claim was that no one had died, we subsequently revised this rating to "Outdated.")
Weeks earlier, on Nov. 26, the world's first cases were popping up in countries such as China, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, and the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the strain a "variant of concern" because of its contagiousness.
But none of those cases resulted in death according to statistics available to public health officials at the time.
In an email to Snopes on Dec. 10, a WHO spokesperson wrote: "For Omicron, we have not had any deaths reported, but it is still early in the clinical course of disease and this may change."
After Johnson's remark on Dec. 13, Snopes contacted the international agency again.
To that inquiry, the spokesperson said the agency does not "disaggregate deaths reports" by coronavirus variant. In other words, the WHO publicly reports deaths among people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 no matter the strain (see the agency's dashboard here) and it did not categorize death certificates based on who tested positive for what variant. That email continued:
As case numbers linked to a variant of concern increase globally, we expect the number of hospitalized cases and even deaths to be reported.
Many countries still do not have the capacity to sequence samples from all cases or deaths – so information on deaths due to specific [variants of concern] might be difficult to report accurately. More information on case severity associated with Omicron is expected in the coming weeks due to the time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of severe cases, and deaths.
Put another way, if any coronavirus patient who was infected by the strain had indeed died in, or before, Johnson's remark on Dec. 13, it would take days — if not weeks — for medical examiners, doctors, and health officials to definitively conclude that the variant led to their death, and then more time to update public reporting systems accordingly.
The same goes for hospitalizations linked to the strain. Dr. Susan Hopkins, of the UK Health Security Agency's, said of the reporting delay in a statement on Dec. 13:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the omicron was likely spreading more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus — though it's transmissibility compared to its its precursor, the delta variant, remained unknown.
But early studies indicated the strain may cause less severe COVID-19 symptoms compared to, the delta variant. Speaking to The Associated Press (AP) for an interview that published Dec. 8., CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, in the U.S. alone, more than 40 people were infected by the coronavirus strain so far, and more than three-quarters of them were vaccinated against COVID-19. She said “the disease is mild” in almost all of those detected cases, with reported symptoms mainly cough, congestion, and fatigue.
As of Dec. 13, the CDC stated on its website that more data are needed to know if omicron infections cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.
Even though very limited data exists to show omicron's toll, public health officials say COVID-19 vaccinations are communities' best defense to prevent the variant's spread and keep emergency health care systems functioning efficiently. As the University of Missouri Health Care explains on its website:
The best way to stop viruses from mutating is to slow their spread, and the best way to slow their spread is through vaccination. Even if the omicron variant proves more contagious, scientists are confident the existing vaccines will continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
And there’s another bright spot: Scientists are learning more about booster shots, and it appears the booster does more than just “top off” your antibody levels. It might even help broaden your defenses in a way that offers protection against omicron and future variants.
As of Dec. 18, the number of omicron deaths reported by the UK Health Security Agency had risen to 14. (Note: This fact check will no longer be updated.)