The surge in Covid numbers that we're witnessing in the UK and Europe, as well as the U.S., follows the onset of a wave that we can now associate more definitively with Omicron, the extremely fast-spreading variant first flagged by South African scientists in mid-November. Its presence today has been confirmed in at least 89 countries worldwide. For weeks however, policymakers kept ignoring some of the earliest signs that were there of this latest variant of concern being- well, not that concerning.
Much of the information in those early days was of course coming from South African doctors and scientists, who were dealing with it on a daily basis, and they aired their optimism from the start - people getting infected simply weren't presenting the symptoms of severe disease anywhere near the extent of those who caught COVID-19 in three previous waves in South Africa. At the same time, it was doing a real number on the prevailing Delta variant, replacing it at a rate of knots in the province of Gauteng, which was ahead of the rest of the country. Everything indicated that Omicron would - and sooner rather than later - very likely displace Delta as the dominant strain worldwide.
The South African doctors and scientists copped quite a bit of flak from their colleagues around the world for sounding out their early observations of how the new variant was behaving. It was grossly unfair, and smacked of chauvinism. They were criticised for peddling 'anecdotal' observations, of not accounting for South Africa's atypical demographics (even though they hardly extrapolated onto other countries), and of 'underestimating' the virus. But now a spate of studies from countries such as the UK, Denmark and Canada are all vindicating everything that they said.
Three of these studies came from the UK in just the last couple of days. An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalisation risks for Omicron cases in England, and found people infected with the variant are around 20% less likely to go to the hospital at all than those infected with the Delta variant, as well as 40% less likely to be hospitalised for a night or more.
A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh, suggests the risk of hospitalisation was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. The third, by the UK Health Security Agency, estimates people catching Omicron are 50% to 70% less likely to need hospital care compared with previous variants. The HSA's analysis is based on all cases of Omicron and Delta in the UK since the beginning of November, including 132 people admitted to hospital with the variant.
Denmark's Statnes Serum Institute looked at more than 143,000 cases between Nov. 22- Dec. 15 and found that people who contracted Omicron were nearly two-thirds less likely to end up in hospital. Just 0.5% of 18,941 Omicron-infected patients ended up in a hospital, compared to 1.4% of the 125,021 patients infected with other variants.
But the Omicron scare generated over the last few weeks has been enough to drive up people's inclination to get the booster shot of the vaccine - driving up registrations for people getting their third or even fourth jabs in mostly Western countries, at a time when three quarters of healthcare workers in Africa are still unvaccinated. Go figure.
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