Scientists are detecting signs that COVID-19’s frightening omicron wave has crested in the United Kingdom and is about to do so in the United States, at which point instances might begin to decline rapidly.
The reason for this is that, barely a month and a half after being discovered in South Africa, the variation has shown to be so infectious that it may be running out of individuals to infect.
“It’s going to come down as rapidly as it went up,” Ali Mokdad, a health metrics sciences professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said.
Experts caution, however, that much remains unknown about how the pandemic’s next phase may play out. In both nations, the plateauing or ebbing does not occur at the same time or at the same rate. Even if the drop-off occurs, patients and overburdened hospitals would still face weeks or months of pain.
“As we decline the hill on the backside, there are still a lot of individuals who will get infected,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, head of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which forecasts a peak in reported cases within the week.
According to Mokdad, the University of Washington’s widely respected model predicts that the number of daily reported cases in the United States would peak at 1.2 million on January 19 and then drop rapidly “simply because everyone who may be infected will be sick.”
Indeed, according to the university’s estimations, the real number of new daily infections in the United States — an estimate that includes people who have never been tested — has already peaked, reaching 6 million on Jan. 6.
According to official data, new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom fell to about 140,000 per day in the previous week after spiking to more than 200,000 per day earlier this month.
While cases are still climbing in locations like southwest England and the West Midlands, Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at Britain’s Open University, believes the outbreak has peaked in London.
The data have generated optimism that the two nations are set to see something similar to what happened in South Africa, where the wave crested at record highs for almost a month before falling dramatically.
“We are witnessing a distinct fall-off of cases in the United Kingdom,” said Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. “But I’d want to see them decline much lower before we know if what occurred in South Africa would happen here,” he said.
Differences between Britain and South Africa, such as Britain’s aging population and people’s inclination to spend more time indoors in the winter, might make the outbreak more difficult for the country and others like it.
On the other side, the British government’s choice to place limited limitations on omicron might allow the virus to spread through the population and run its course more quicker than it would in Western European nations like France, Spain, and Italy, where COVID-19 regulations are stricter.
European nations that implement lockdowns, according to Shabir Mahdi, head of health sciences at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, will not necessarily emerge through the omicron wave with fewer illnesses; the cases may just be spread out over a longer period of time.
The World Health Organization announced on Tuesday that 7 million new COVID-19 cases had been reported throughout Europe in the last week, describing it as a “tidal wave spreading over the area.” The WHO highlighted Mokdad’s group’s modeling, which estimates that half of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron in eight weeks.
Hunter and others, on the other hand, believe the world will have moved on from the omicron surge by then.
“There will certainly be some ups and downs along the road,” Hunter added, “but I’m hoping we’ll be out of this by Easter.”
Nonetheless, the sheer number of individuals sick might overwhelm already-fragile health systems, according to Dr. Prabhat Jha of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto’s Centre for Global Health Research.
“The following several weeks will be nasty,” Jha said, “because there are so many individuals becoming infected in absolute numbers that it will spill over into ICUs.”
“It’s going to be a terrible two or three weeks,” Mokdad predicted in the United States. We must make difficult judgments about whether or not to let certain key individuals to continue working despite the fact that they may be contagious.”
According to Meyers of the University of Texas, Omicron might one day be viewed as a turning point in the epidemic. With the immunity obtained from all of the new infections, new medicines, and continuing immunization, the coronavirus may become something with which we can cohabit more readily.
“By the conclusion of this wave, considerably more people will have been infected with a COVID strain,” Meyers said. “At some point — and omicron might be that moment — we’ll be able to draw a line between what is a catastrophic worldwide danger and something that is a lot more controllable sickness.”
That’s one possible scenario, she added, but a new variation — one that’s significantly worse than omicron — may emerge as well.