Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Sunday that Britain faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the omicron coronavirus variant, and announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defenses against it.
In a televised statement, Johnson said everyone age 18 and older will be offered a third shot of vaccine by the end of this month in response to the omicron “emergency.” The previous target was the end of January.
He said cases of the highly transmissible variant are doubling every two to three days in Britain, and “there is a tidal wave of omicron coming.”
”And I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” Johnson said. “But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose – a booster dose – we can all bring our level of protection back up.”
He announced a “national mission” to deliver booster vaccines, with pop-up vaccination centers and seven-day-a-week getting extra support from teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators.
Johnson’s Dec. 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.
The U.K. Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to omicron, though preliminary data show that effectiveness appears to rise to between 70% and 75% after a third vaccine dose.
More than 80% of people age 12 and up in Britain have received two doses of vaccine, and 40% of adults have had three doses. Giving the rest a booster in the next three weeks will be a huge challenge, requiring almost 1 million doses delivered a day. Johnson acknowledged that many routine medical procedures would have to be postponed to meet the goal.
Johnson’s announcement came hours after the government raised the country’s official coronavirus threat level, warning the rapid spread of the omicron variant had pushed the U.K. into risky territory.
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the 1of the highly transmissible new strain “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread. They recommended raising the alert level from 3 to 4 on a 5-point scale. The top level, 5, indicates authorities think the health care system is about to be overwhelmed.
The doctors said early evidence shows omicron is spreading much faster than the currently dominant delta variant, and that vaccines offer less protection against it. British officials say omicron is likely to replace delta as the dominant strain in the U.K. within days.
“Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalizations from omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly,” they said.
Concerns about the new variant led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, COVID-19 certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and people are being urged to work from home if possible.
Many scientists say that’s unlikely to be enough, however, and are calling for tougher measures, which the government so far has resisted.
Scientists in South Africa, where omicron was first identified, say they see signs it may cause less severe disease than delta, but caution that it is too soon to be certain.
New Study Rings Alarm Bells
A new study from the United Kingdom warns that the Omicron variant of coronavirus could cause 25,000 to 75,000 deaths in the United Kingdom by April next year if additional precautions are not taken. With over 600 new cases confirmed on Saturday, the UK is experiencing the fastest spread of the Omicron variant anywhere in the world. The unconfirmed spread could be significantly higher, the Indian Express reported.
The new study, conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, made a number of projections based on different scenarios for the variant’s transmission capability and interventions such as the administration of booster doses of vaccine.
In the most optimistic scenario, with low immune escape and high booster dose efficacy, hospitalizations are expected to rise to 60% of the peak seen in the UK in January of this year (about 3,800 hospital admissions every day), the report said.
These findings suggest that the introduction of the Omicron B.1.1.529 variant in England will result in a significant increase in SARS-CoV2 transmission, with the potential for significantly higher case rates than those recorded during the Alpha winter wave in 2020-21 in the absence of strict control measures, the study said, adding that “this is due to Omicron’s apparent high transmissibility and ability to infect people who already have SARS-CoV2 immunity from prior infection or vaccination.”
With inputs from Associated Press.
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