Health

Omicron Appears to Have Peaked in U.K., Offering Hope the Wave Is Receding

LONDON – The UK appears to have passed the peak of the latest wave of Covid-19 caused by Omicron, a promising sign that the impact of the highly transmissible variant may be short, albeit severe, and fueling optimism that the pandemic may wane.

Scientists say the UK data provides encouraging signals to countries behind the UK in the Omicron wave – such as the US – that the variant repeats a pattern it followed in South Africa, where cases rose rapidly over the course of a little more than a month, before declining return.

The seven-day average daily new cases of Covid-19 in the UK fell for more than a week and on Tuesday fell below the 14-day average for the first time since November, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the official. data. Both are indications that the caseload is decreasing.

The rate of increase in the number of new hospital admissions for Covid-19 has also slowed, and in England – especially London, which saw the Omicron wave sooner than other regions – new hospital admissions for Covid-19 are falling. The first cases of Omicron were discovered in the UK on 27 November.

However, scientists warn that the number of cases and hospitalizations may reverse course as social mixing increases as the holiday season ends and the new semester begins.

Hospital admissions in England began to decline, after a rapid rise during the Omicron wave.


Photo:

Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

So far, the British experience has bolstered the conviction that Omicron is milder than previous versions of the virus – at least in places like the UK, where vaccination rates among the elderly and the most vulnerable are very high.

The trends are breeding optimism that the worst of Omicron – and possibly the entire pandemic – is ebbing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated he is not likely to impose limited public health restrictions, such as working from home, which were put in place to contain Omicron after January 26, when it is due to expire.

“At least in the hospital where I work, we think the peak inpatient admissions for Covid could be in the next week or so,” said Tom Wingfield, an infectious disease doctor who treats patients in Liverpool, England. He said he expects in his district to expect more admissions as case rates rise in the older and more vulnerable groups, but said that nationwide, “it looks like we’re past the corner now.”

“We’re all tired of it, but I’m more positive about 2022, at least in the UK,” said Dr Wingfield.

The average daily reported cases in the UK for seven days fell to 138,268 on Thursday, which is below the 14-day average daily caseload for the third day in a row, in a sign that the epidemic has eased. The last time the 14-day average was above the seven-day average was on November 12.

And the share of tests yielding a positive result — another measure of whether an outbreak is growing or declining — has also reversed. The positivity rate registered 8.8% on January 11, according to the University of Oxford’s “Our World in Data” project. That’s nearly double the rate it was before Omicron’s discovery but lower than the 11% rate recorded on January 4.

Hospital admissions in England also started to fall after a rapid rise with the start of the Omicron wave late last year. Admissions in England, which published the latest data and accounts for most admissions, fell 1% in the seven days to January 11 compared to the previous week, to 14,098, according to official data. This compares to increases on a weekly basis that exceeded 70% at the beginning of the year.

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The Covid-19 memorial wall in London.


Photo:

Hester Ng/Zuma Press

The data showed that admissions in London, where Omicron arrived earlier than other parts of the country, fell by 18% in the seven days to January 11 compared to the previous week.

Reported deaths from Covid-19 are increasing, although they tend to lag behind cases and hospitalizations. Daily deaths averaged 261 in the seven days through Thursday, up 70% from the week. That compares to more than 1,200 per day during the deadliest phase of the epidemic in January 2021.

Scientists said the latest data may not fully capture cases and hospital activity due to holidays and due to recent changes to the UK’s testing system. The government recently abandoned the requirement for people to get a positive result on a rapid antigen test to get a confirmatory PCR test as well, which may affect reported cases.

However, other data paint a similar picture. For example, a closely watched data set produced by the Office for National Statistics estimates that more than 7% of England’s population – 3.7 million people – contracted Covid-19 in the week ending January 6. Last week, however, the rate of increase was slowing. ONS modeling indicates cases in London, where the Omicron outbreak in the UK first broke out, during the same period.

Unlike the United States, where hospitalizations are at a record level, Omicron’s impact on hospitals in the UK has been less than in previous contagion periods. The number of hospital admissions in January last year in England reached 34,000, with more than 3,800 admissions per day.

The number of daily admissions in England is currently around 2,000 people per day and there were 16,716 people in English hospitals with Covid-19 on Thursday. The number of critically ill people hospitalized has decreased significantly with Omicron. In England, there were 666 people in mechanical ventilator beds on Thursday, 13% less than the previous week and less than a fifth of the maximum occupancy of 3,736 reached in January 2021.

Scientists are using automation, real-time analysis, and aggregation of data from around the world to quickly identify and understand novel coronavirus variants before the next type spreads widely. Image caption: Sharon Shee

Doctors attribute the reduction in severity to widespread vaccination and a booster campaign that means more than 91% of those aged 50 and over had received a third dose by January 6. The variant is also associated with milder disease in general, possibly because it appears to be less adept at penetrating the lungs than previous variants.

What’s less clear is why the Omicron wave appears at the peak so quickly, compared to those driven by the previous variants.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said there are several possible reasons: One might be that it is spreading so quickly that it is running out of potential hosts more quickly. Another change could be the big changes in behavior as people switched to working from home and took other steps to limit contact with others affecting its spread.

The third explanation, which he said he prefers, is that Omicron reproduces faster. In epidemiological models, the shorter period between each doubling of infection compresses the epidemic wave.

“You get a prickly peak, a much faster higher, and a much faster fall, if the generation time is shorter,” said Professor Woolhouse.

If the UK is approaching the peak of the omicron wave, South Africa is already on a slope.

The variant’s first case was discovered by scientists in South Africa in the first half of November and pushed recorded cases to a new peak of 23,000 cases per day, just over a month later. The caseload slowed sharply in the final weeks of December and fell again to about 7,000 per day by January 11, according to Our World in Data. The South African government said on December 31 it had passed the peak, citing a decline in cases and hospital admissions.

write to Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com

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