There are good reasons to be concerned about the Omicron variant. For starters, this strain has 50 mutations, twice as many as Delta. Early reports from South Africa, where the virus has been circulating for a while, suggest it’s outcompeting Delta and spreading rapidly. There is a concern, too, that it could blunt the vaccines, because more than half of the new mutations affect the spike protein that the jabs are designed against. But all of this is theoretical: we need real-world data. So we won’t know whether it really is more transmissible, or how the vaccines perform against it, until long after Christmas. The concern, for now, remains Delta, as Chris Whitty said last week.
On that front, the news is better. My mathematical model, which I developed at the University of Bristol, has been charting and forecasting the pandemic. Called the Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF) it has been pretty accurate so far. Today, it shows that cases stopped rising at the end of October.
There is better news, still. Despite the R-rate rising every day for the past three weeks, it has so far stayed below the critical value of 1.0 during November (above 1 and the pandemic grows; below 1 and it shrinks).
What’s more, is that daily new cases reported in England on Saturday, Sunday and Monday each fell below what they were a week before. The PCCF model suggests that the R-rate has now stabilised below 1.0, so cases will continue to fall.
The PCCF is also predicting a gradual fall in daily hospitalisations from now on (though there may be a slight rebound caused by extra mixing over Christmas and New Year). But we are not likely to see many days when more than 800 people are hospitalised in England from now on.
Deaths are likely to follow a similar general trend. These may stay roughly at the current level — around a hundred a day — for the next two months, but they should then start to decrease as we move into spring.
How much will the picture change when Omicron is dominant? We should expect to see cases rise again. But, how far — and how fast — they climb will depend on how much it sidesteps England's very high levels of immunity (93 per cent of the population have recorded antibodies).
The key question is: how severe will illness from Omicron be? The initial information on this front is encouraging. The first South African doctor to report the new variant to the authorities, Dr Angelique Coetzee, has said that what first alerted her was the fact that her patients' ‘symptoms were so different and so mild’. Moreover, South African scientists have said there was no evidence that the variant is causing serious illness, and no hospitalisations have yet been recorded.
Whether or not Britain has overreacted in its response to Omicron remains to be seen. But, for now, the vaccines have made real inroads against Delta, which may soon be in full retreat across England.