Omicron – what should and shouldn’t we be looking out for?

Photo by cottonbro on

We’re holding our breath a little at the moment to see what the level of threat from the Omicron variant is.  It seems that on an hourly basis we are hearing news and commentary that either encourages confidence that all will be well or panic that we are about to head back into a nightmare.

Yesterday it was the turn of the Pfizer and Moderna CEOs to comment.  One was keen to stress that they thought their vaccine would be okay and would continue to provide protected against the new variant, the other was far more pessimistic about the prospects of current generation vaccines and said that they expected a major drop in vaccine efficacy. Which one should we listen to? I suspect that it is wisest not to pay too much attention. As CEOs their target audience is less you and me and more their investors and politicians, their concern at a time of uncertainty is to look after the commercial security of their business. That’s not a wrong concern because this matters for the well-being of their employees too.  However we need to remember that at this stage they are in a similar position to many others, they may be getting some early feedback from the scientists currently looking at the virus but I suspect they have not personally been in the labs and they definitely don’t have all the data in front of them yet.

So, what we really need to hear, and are going to have to wait for is whether or not is first of all how the variant responds to vaccines. This will come partly from seeing how it performs in real world situations but a significant amount of data will also come back from lab trials and analysis over the next few weeks.

Another crucial piece of the jigsaw will come from South Africa as one of the countries where the variant was first observed.  What we want to know here is two things. First of all is there evidence that the virus has gained an advantage in terms of transmission and secondly what impact is that having on hospital admissions and deaths. 

It will take a while to see what is happening in terms of serious illness. Whilst we’ve heard early observations that cases observed have been mild, it usually takes time to see whether there are more serious cases coming through as at first the virus is transmitted amongst younger, fitter, more mobile people.  So, just because we’ve seen a lot of milder cases in the early days doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be more serious cases coming through or that the variant is less deadly than previous ones.

We are beginning to observe some data coming through on case growth and this is what we are seeing. 

Now, there’s a little bit of a challenge here because case numbers have been distorted a little due to there being a bit of catch up with historical cases being registered. This led to 18k worth of cases being logged in one day. 

Accessed 01-12-2021

So, I’ve tried to factor that in by stripping out that days’ numbers when looking at case growth.  This is what we are seeing.

This means that when we are comparing week day to week day, growth has been eye watering but from a very low base. 

The daily increase in the rolling average is running at about 10% which doesn’t seem too bad until you remember that UK equivalent growth was around about 1-2% during the last cycle. 

It is important therefore to recognise that we have been seeing significant, exponential growth.  Whether or not that is serious and cause for alarm depends however on two things. The first is if this translates into serious illness and high mortality. We won’t know that fully for a few more weeks yet. Secondly, we need to know whether or not this is going to turn into a significant, long term and substantial growth in cases which dwarfs previous waves or whether we end up seeing a substantial but short-lived spike in cases as has been experienced with Delta in places like Scotland and the Netherlands.  There are glimmers of hope here in that the rate of growth does appear to be slowing down.  However, it would need to continue to come down much further before we could be sure that cases were anywhere close to peaking.

So at the moment, it remains a case of wait and see.  The sensible response is to take appropriate precautionary action to try and mitigate potential spread of the variant whilst not rushing into panic measures.

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