The festive season will be dominated by a large wave of covid-19 infections caused by the omicron variant, but few countries appear to have substantially changed their plans
13 December 2021
There now seems little doubt that the Christmas period will coincide with another major wave of coronavirus cases around the world, as it becomes clear that the omicron variant can largely evade prior immunity from infection or two vaccine doses, and might be even more transmissible than the delta variant. In England and Scotland, cases have been doubling every two days. The big unknown remains whether there will be as many hospitalisations and deaths as in previous waves.
In South Africa, the country that first detected omicron, the variant has spread far faster than earlier variants, with cases doubling every three to four days.
As New Scientist went to press, there was confusion – due to IT issues – about whether case numbers in South Africa were now slowing or still accelerating. But in Gauteng province, nearly as many cases have already been reported as during the country’s delta wave earlier this year.
Initial reports suggest there have been fewer hospitalisations and deaths in South Africa than during previous waves, but it is too early to be sure. Furthermore, it is estimated that almost everyone in the country had already been infected or vaccinated before omicron began to spread, so prior immunity – although usually insufficient to prevent infection – would be expected to greatly reduce the risk of severe disease.
Outside South Africa, the UK and Denmark have so far reported the most confirmed cases of omicron, prompting Israel to plan to ban travel to these nations on top of other travel restrictions it has already imposed.
Yet the high case numbers may largely reflect the fact that the two countries do far more sequencing than most others. Sequencing the viral genome remains the only way to confirm which variant has infected someone, though PCR tests can sometimes give an indication too. The UK would be expected to have more omicron cases than other nations because of its strong travel links to South Africa, but there is no reason to think Denmark is exceptional.
“Omicron is already everywhere,” Hans Kluge at the World Health Organization said on 7 December. The many travel bans imposed because of the variant – largely on southern African countries – wouldn’t work for this reason, he said.
So far, it appears only a few countries have introduced measures to prevent omicron’s spread within their borders, though some, including Germany and Belgium, already had restrictions in place to tackle high numbers of delta cases.
Home working for those who can has been reintroduced across the UK, but when New Scientist went to press, large events would probably still go ahead in England for those with vaccine passports. This is despite UK data suggesting that being double vaccinated offers little protection from symptomatic infection with omicron.
Denmark has imposed similar measures, limiting opening hours for bars but not closing them altogether.
While most other nations have yet to impose new restrictions due to omicron, some are stepping up efforts to give booster shots to people who have already had two vaccine doses. On 12 December, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the US president, urged those already vaccinated to get a booster shot, citing evidence suggesting it greatly increases protection against omicron.
The same day, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a mass booster campaign, saying “Do not make the mistake of thinking omicron can’t hurt you, can’t make you and your loved ones seriously ill.”
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