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Scientists are seeing signals that the alarming omicron wave of COVID-19 may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the United States, in which case cases could start to drop by spectacular way.
The reason: The variant has proven to be so contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.
“It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” said Ali Mokdad, science professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At the same time, experts warn that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the next phase of the pandemic could unfold. Peaking or ebbing in the two countries is not happening everywhere at the same time or at the same rate. And weeks or months of misery still await patients and overwhelmed hospitals even if the drop occurs.
“There are still a lot of people who will be infected as we go down the slope in the back,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, who predicts that reported cases will peak within the week.
The University of Washington’s own highly influential model predicts that the number of daily reported cases in the United States will reach 1.2 million by January 19 and then fall sharply “simply because everyone who might be infected will be infected. “, according to Mokdad.
In fact, he said, according to the university’s complex calculations, the actual 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 January 6.
In Britain, meanwhile, new cases of COVID-19 fell to around 140,000 a day last week, after soaring to more than 200,000 a day earlier this month, government data shows. .
Figures from the UK’s National Health Service this week show coronavirus hospital admissions among adults have started to fall, with infections falling across all age groups.
Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at Britain’s Open University, said while COVID-19 cases continue to rise in places such as the South West of England and the West Midlands, the epidemic may have peaked in London.
The figures have raised hopes that both countries are on the verge of something similar to what happened in South Africa, where in the space of about a month the wave has reached highs. record highs, then dropped significantly.
“We are seeing a marked decrease in cases in the UK, but I would like to see them fall much more before I know if what happened in South Africa will happen here,” said Dr Paul Hunter, professor of Medicine. at the British University of East Anglia.
Dr David Heymann, who previously headed the World Health Organization’s infectious diseases department, said Britain was “the closest country of any country to emerging from the pandemic”, adding that the COVID-19 was on the verge of becoming endemic.
Differences between Britain and South Africa, including Britain’s older population and people’s tendency to spend more time indoors in winter, could mean a bumpier outbreak for the country and other countries like him.
On the other hand, the decision of the British authorities to adopt minimum restrictions against omicron could allow the virus to spread in the population and to run its course much faster than it could in the countries of Europe. countries that have imposed stricter COVID-19 controls, such as France, Spain and Italy.
Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said European countries that impose lockdowns will not necessarily come through the omicron wave with fewer infections; cases may just stretch over a longer period of time.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there had been 7 million new cases of COVID-19 across Europe in the past week, calling it “a tidal wave sweeping through the region. “. The WHO cited modeling by Mokdad’s group which predicts that half of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron in about eight weeks.
By then, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be past omicron’s push.
“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but hopefully by Easter we’ll be out of it,” Hunter said.
Still, the number of people infected could prove overwhelming for fragile health care systems, said Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“The next few weeks are going to be brutal because in absolute numbers there are so many people infected that it will trickle down to intensive care,” Jha said.
Mokdad also warned in the United States: “It’s going to be a difficult two or three weeks. We have to make tough decisions to let some essential workers continue to work, knowing they could be contagious. »
Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, said Meyers of the University of Texas. The immunity gained from all the new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, could make the coronavirus something we can more easily coexist with.
“By the end of this wave, many more people will have been infected with a variant of COVID,” Meyers said. “At some point we can draw a line – and omicron may be that point – where we move from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that is a much more manageable disease.”
That’s a plausible future, she says, but there’s also the possibility that a new variant – far worse than omicron – might pop up.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Maria Cheng and Carla K. Johnson, The Associated Press