Omicron May Be Spreading Faster in UK than S Africa, Warns Expert; Says ‘Mild Illness’ Not ‘Good News’

Cases of the Omicron Covid variant may be spreading faster in England than in South Africa, a senior UK scientific adviser said, warning of a “very severe setback” to hopes of bringing the pandemic under control in the country, reports said. Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the prime minister’s plan B measures were “absolutely not an overreaction,” even if Omicron proved milder than the current dominant variant.

On Thursday, Edmunds told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar that it was “extremely likely” that there were many more cases of Omicron in the community than those confirmed by testing, and that the numbers were expected to skyrocket in the coming weeks, a report in the Guardian stated.

The UK Health Security Agency identified 249 new Omicron cases on Thursday, nearly doubling the number announced the day before, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 817. Edmunds stated that if the UK had 1,000 cases today, a two-to-three-day doubling time would increase the number to 8,000 in a week and 64,000 in two weeks. These would be in addition to the ongoing Delta outbreak.

Edmunds said no one wants to reintroduce these lockdown measures as it will be very damaging to certain sectors of the economy, particularly the hospitality and retail sectors, but that “we must do it”.

“With the rate at which this virus is spreading, we may well have a significant number of cases by Christmas,” he adding that “whatever we do now will not be excessive.” Travel restrictions, he said, were “not really going to do much now” given the rate of community transmission.

The warning came as the UK government reported an additional 50,867 daily Covid cases, 813 hospital admissions, and 148 deaths on Thursday, indicating an increase in all measures over the previous week.

Edmunds dismissed suggestions that the Omicron variant might be “good news” if it hospitalised people at half the rate of the Delta variant. The hope stems primarily from hospital admissions in South Africa, where the population is much younger than in the UK, making severe Covid illness less likely to occur in the first place. While the average age in the United Kingdom is slightly more than 40, it is less than 28 in South Africa, the Guardian report states.

Edmunds stated that there was “not a shred of evidence” that Omicron was half as pathogenic as the Delta variant, but that even if this were the case, it might not make the difference that people hoped for. He said there was no doubt about this being a major setback.

“If you are worried about the time [at] which the NHS might start to get very stressed, then halving the hospitalisation rate means that buys you two to three days. I think it’s really silly to suggest this is good news; it couldn’t be further from that,” he said, adding that “this is as bad news as you can possibly get, quite frankly.”

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