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 brief, if intense, and is fueling the optimism about the decline of the pandemic.

Scientists say the UK data offers encouraging signs for countries behind the UK in the Omicron wave – such as the US – that the variant echoes the pattern it followed in South Africa, where cases rose rapidly in just over a month, before plummeting back. The wave of Omicron infections in the United States is expected to peak in the coming weeks, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The seven-day average of new daily Covid-19 cases in the UK has been falling for more than a week and fell below the 14-day average on Tuesday for the first time since November, according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal of Authorities Data. Both are signs that the number of cases is declining.

The rate of increase in the number of new hospitalizations for Covid-19 has also slowed and in England – and particularly in London, which saw the Omicron wave earlier than other regions – new hospital admissions with Covid -19 are down. The first cases of Omicron were detected in the UK on November 27.

Scientists warn, however, that the number of cases and hospital admissions could still reverse as social mix increases with the end of the holiday season and the start of the new school term.

Hospital admissions in England have started to fall, after rising rapidly during the Omicron wave.


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Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

The UK experience so far has further strengthened the belief 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 generating optimism that the worst of Omicron – and perhaps the whole pandemic – is receding. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has signaled he is unlikely to maintain the limited public health restrictions, such as working from home, that have been put in place to contain Omicron beyond January 26, when they are due to expire. .

“At least in my hospital, we think the peak of inpatient admissions with Covid could be in the next week,” said Tom Wingfield, an infectious disease doctor who treats patients in Liverpool, England. He said in his district he expects more admissions as case rates rise in older and more vulnerable groups, but said nationally, “we seem to be turning the page now “.

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

The UK’s seven-day average of daily reported cases fell to 138,268 on Thursday, falling below the 14-day average daily caseload for the third day in a row, a sign that the outbreak is receding. The last time the 14-day average was above the seven-day average was November 12.

The share of tests that return a positive result – another indicator of the growth or decline of an epidemic – has also reversed course. The positivity rate recorded 8.8% on January 11, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. This is roughly double the rate it was before Omicron’s detection, but is lower than the 11% rate recorded on January 4.

Hospital admissions in England have also started to fall after rising rapidly when the Omicron wave started late last year. Admissions in England, which released the most recent data and account for most admissions, fell 1% in the seven days to January 11 from a week earlier, to 14,098, official data showed. . This compares to weekly increases that topped 70% at the turn of the year.

The Covid-19 Memorial Wall in London.


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Hesther Ng/Zuma Press

Admissions to London, where Omicron arrived earlier than other parts of the country, fell 18% in the seven days to Jan. 11 from a week earlier, the data showed.

Reported deaths with Covid-19 are increasing, although they tend to lag behind cases and hospital admissions. The average number of daily deaths was 261 in the seven days to Thursday, up 70% on the week. That compares to more than 1,200 a day during the deadliest phase of the pandemic in January 2021.

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

Yet other data paints a similar picture. A closely watched dataset produced by the Office for National Statistics, for example, estimates that more than 7% of England’s population – 3.7million people – had Covid-19 in the week ended January 6. That’s up from 6.4% the previous week, but the rate of increase is slowing. ONS modeling suggests cases in London, where the UK’s Omicron outbreak first took off, have dropped over the same period.

Unlike in the US, where hospitalizations have reached an all-time high, Omicron’s impact on hospitals in the UK has been smaller than during previous outbreaks of infection. Hospital admissions in January last year in England reached 34,000, with more than 3,800 admissions a day.

Daily admissions in England are currently around 2,000 a day and there were 16,716 people in English hospitals with Covid-19 on Thursday. The number of seriously ill people in hospital was significantly lower with Omicron. In England, there were 666 people in mechanical ventilation beds on Thursday, down 13% from a week earlier and less than a fifth of the peak occupancy of 3,736 reached in January 2021.

Scientists are using automation, real-time analysis and pooling data from around the world to quickly identify and understand new coronavirus variants before the next one spreads widely. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

Doctors attribute the reduction in severity to widespread vaccination and a recall campaign which meant that more than 91% of those over 50 and over had received a third dose by January 6. Analysis by public health officials and scientists in the UK and South Africa suggests the variant is also associated with milder disease in general, possibly because it appears to be less adept at penetrating deeply. in the lungs than earlier variants.

What is less clear is precisely why the Omicron wave seems to peak so quickly, compared to those driven by previous variants.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said there were several possible reasons: one could be that it spreads so quickly that it runs out of hosts faster potentials. Another could be big changes in behavior as people shifted to working from home and took other measures to limit contact with others that affected its spread.

A third explanation, which he said favors, is that Omicron reproduces much faster. In epidemiological models, a shorter interval between each doubling of infections compresses the epidemic wave.

“You get a much sharper, much faster, much faster peak, if the generation time is shorter,” Professor Woolhouse said.

If the UK is nearing the peak of its Omicron wave, South Africa is already on the downslope.

The first case of the variant was detected by scientists in South Africa in the first half of November and boosted recorded cases to a new peak of 23,000 a day just over a month later. The number of cases slowed sharply in the last weeks of December and had fallen to around 7,000 a day by January 11, according to Our World in Data. On December 31, the South African government said it had passed the peak, citing falling cases and hospital admissions.

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

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