Scientists are seeing signs that the alarming ommicron wave of COVID-19 has peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the US, at which point cases could drop dramatically.
The reason: The strain has proven to be so highly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect just a month and a half after it was first discovered in South Africa.
“It will come down just as fast as it has gone up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At the same time, experts warn that much remains uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic could unfold. The flattening or ebbing in the two countries is not happening at the same time or at the same pace everywhere. And weeks or months of misery lie ahead for patients and overstretched hospitals, even if the drop-off does come.
“There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we go down the back slope,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, who predicts the number of reported cases will rise within the week. will reach a climax.
The highly influential model from the University of Washington predicts that the number of daily reported cases in the US will rise to 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and then fall sharply “simply because anyone who could be infected will be infected,” Mokdad said. .
He said that according to the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the US — an estimate that also includes people who have never been tested — has already peaked, reaching 6 million on Jan. 6.
In Britain, meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases fell to about 140,000 per day in the past week, after rising to more than 200,000 per day earlier this month, according to government data.
Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at Britain’s Open University, said that while cases are still rising in places like South West England and the West Midlands, the outbreak may have peaked in London.
The numbers have raised hopes that the two countries are on the brink of experiencing something similar to what happened in South Africa, where the wave reached record highs in about a month and then declined significantly.
“We’re seeing a clear decline in cases in the UK, but I’d like to see them drop much further before we know if what happened in South Africa will also happen here,” said Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the British University of East Anglia.
Differences between Britain and South Africa, including Britain’s older population and people’s tendency to spend more time indoors in winter, could spell a bumpy breakout for the country and other nations like it.
On the other hand, the decision by the UK authorities to set minimum restrictions against ommicrons could allow the virus to rip through the population and run its course much faster than in Western European countries that have more severe COVID-19. controls, such as France, Spain and Italy.
Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, said European countries that impose lockdowns will not necessarily get through the ommicron wave with fewer infections; the cases can simply be spread out over a longer period of time.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there have been 7 million new COVID-19 cases across Europe in the past week, calling it a “tidal wave sweeping across the region”. The WHO cited models from Mokdad’s group that predict that half of the European population will be infected with omicron within about eight weeks.
By then, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be over the microwave.
“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I hope we’ll be out of this by Easter,” said Hunter.
Still, the sheer number of people infected can be overwhelming for 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 in absolute numbers there are so many people infected that it will spill over to ICUs,” Jha said.
Mokdad also warned in the US: “It will be two or three tough weeks. We have to make tough decisions to keep certain essential employees working, knowing they can be contagious.”
Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, said Meyers of the University of Texas. Immunity gained from all new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, could make the coronavirus something that makes it easier for us to coexist.
“By the end of this wave, many more people will be infected with a variant of COVID,” Meyers said. “At some point we’re going to be able to draw a line — and omicron may be that point — where we move from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that is a much more manageable disease.”
That’s a plausible future, she said, but there’s also the possibility that a new variant could emerge — one that’s much 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.