Scientists are seeing signals that the alarming omicron wave of COVID-19 may have peaked in the UK and will do the same in the US, which could lead to a dramatic drop in cases.
The reason: The variant has proven to be so highly contagious that it may run out of people to infect it just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.
“It’s going to go down as fast as it has gone up,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain how the next phase of the pandemic could develop. The plateau or slowdown in the two countries is not happening everywhere at the same time or at the same pace. And even if it comes to abandonment, patients and overwhelmed hospitals still face weeks or months of misery.
In freezing temperatures, people queue to get COVID-19 tests during the spike in Times Square in New York City on Jan. 11.
Roy Rochlin via Getty Images
“There are still plenty of people who become infected when we descend the slope at the back,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas’ COVID-19 modeling consortium, which predicts the reported cases will be theirs within the week Will reach climax.
The University of Washington’s influential pilot projects estimate that the number of daily reported cases in the US will rise to 1.2 million by January 19 and then decline sharply “simply because anyone who could become infected will be infected “, Says Mokdad.
In fact, he said, the true number of new infections every day in the US – an estimate that includes people who have never been tested – has already peaked according to the university’s complex calculations, reaching 6 million on Jan. 6.
In the UK, new COVID-19 cases fell to around 140,000 a day in the last week, after rising to more than 200,000 a day earlier this month, according to government figures.
An advertisement can be seen at a bus stop on Oxford Street in London informing people that they must wear face covering on public transport as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to spread.
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Figures from the UK’s National Health Service this week show that adult hospital admissions with coronavirus have started to decline, with infections falling across all age groups.
Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at the UK’s Open University, said that while COVID-19 cases are still increasing in places like South West England and the West Midlands, the outbreak may have peaked in London.
The numbers give hope that something similar to that in South Africa is about to happen in both countries, where the wave hit record highs in about a month and then declined significantly.
“We are seeing a significant drop in cases in the UK, but I would like to see them drop much further before we know if what happened in South Africa is going to happen here,” said Dr. Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, UK.
Dr. David Heymann, who previously headed the Infectious Diseases Division of the World Health Organization, said the UK was “the closest country to the pandemic,” adding that COVID-19 is slowly becoming endemic.
A view of Times Square, unusually empty due to freezing temperatures and the surge in COVID-19, on January 11th.
Roy Rochlin via Getty Images
Differences between the UK and South Africa, including the UK’s older population and its population’s tendency to spend more time indoors during winter, could mean a more bumpy outbreak for the country and other similar nations.
On the flip side, the UK authorities’ decision to impose minimal restrictions on Omicron could allow the virus to penetrate the population and take its course much faster than in Western European countries that have put in place stricter COVID-19 controls, such as France, Spain and Italy.
Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at the Witwatersrand University of South Africa, said European countries that impose bans will not necessarily come with fewer infections from the omicron wave; the cases can only be spread over a longer period of time.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there had been 7 million new cases of COVID-19 across Europe in the past week, calling it a “tidal wave that is sweeping the region”. The WHO cited models from the Mokdad group that predict that half of the European population will be infected with Omicron within about eight weeks.
At this point, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be through the omicron surge.
“There will likely be some ups and downs along the way, but I hope we will be out of here by Easter,” said Hunter.
Still, the sheer number of infected people could overwhelm fragile health systems, said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“The next few weeks will be brutal because so many people are infected in absolute terms that they spread to intensive care units,” said Jha.
Mokdad also warned in the USA: “It will be two or three tough weeks. We have to make tough decisions to keep certain key employees working because we know they could be contagious. “
Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, said Meyers of the University of Texas. The immunity gained from all of the new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccinations, could make the coronavirus something we can more easily coexist with.
“At the end of this wave, far more people will be infected with a variant of COVID,” said Meyers. “At some point we’ll be able to draw a line – and Omicron might be that point – where we move from a catastrophic global threat to a much more manageable disease.”
That is a plausible future, she said, but there is also the possibility that a new variant may emerge – one that is far worse than Omicron.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.