Omicron: How the world’s fastest spreading virus could also end the pandemic
The Omicron variant has now spread across the globe, with new cases surging in countries including Thailand. As of Sunday (Jan 9), Worldometer.com registered 15.28 million new COVID-19 cases in the past week, a rise of 51 percent from the previous 7-day period.
Worldometer.com, which ranks among the most reliable compiler of global statistics, reported a spike in infections across the world, topped by the tiny Caribbean nation of Guadeloupe with a 332,000 percent rise.
Worryingly, new COVID-19 infections have also soared in countries with a relatively high rate of vaccination. Japan, Israel, Australia, Singapore and Thailand have seen their caseloads surge – by 508, 250, 223, 114 and 81 percent respectively. India, where most of the population is believed to have built up antibodies either through jabs or infection, saw its caseload rise by 524 percent.
History’s most infectious virus
Far more transmissible than previous variants, Omicron has risen to become the world’s second-most contagious virus – closely behind measles.
Omicron has an R number of 8 to 15, compared to 15-18 for measles, explains Prof Dr. Wasun Chanratita, director of Ramathibodi Hospital’s Centre for Medical Genomics. The R number refers to the average number of unvaccinated people infected by one case of a disease. The Delta variant, with an R number of 6.5-8, is far less transmissible than Omicron.
The R number drops as more people are immunized either through vaccination or infection.
However, Omicron is likely the fastest spreading virus ever studied, according to experts including epidemiologist William Hanage, co-director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University. This is because the time it takes for an Omicron case to become infectious is shorter than for measles.
How is the world responding?
After battling COVID-19 for almost two years, most countries have decided against imposing strict lockdowns to curb the threat of Omicron. The Netherlands and China are among the few that have imposed serious restrictions in a bid to rein in the new variant’s spread.
Other governments have cited a range of different reasons for not imposing strict lockdowns, including high vaccination levels, public awareness of how to protect themselves, the economic impact of restrictions, and records showing a relatively low hospitalization and fatality rate among Omicron patients – especially those who have been jabbed.
While the number of new COVID-19 cases soared by 51 percent in the week up to Jan 9, the number of deaths rose by just 1 percent, according to Worldometer.
What does WHO say?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been issuing warnings about Omicron since last year. Its sternest yet came just before the New Year holidays, when the UN body cautioned: “An event canceled is better than a life canceled.”
On Jan 6, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized that countries should not be lulled into categorizing Omicron as mild, because the variant was still hospitalizing and killing people.
Records show that more than 40,000 people worldwide succumbed to COVID-19 in the past seven days.
Though data indicates the hospitalization rate for Omicron is lower, the greater number of cases generated by the new variant still threatens healthcare systems with collapse – especially given that large numbers of infected medics have had to quarantine even if their symptoms are not severe.
What comes next?
India has been reluctant to impose another lockdown, but its rising COVID-19 caseload has forced big cities to impose weekend and night-time curfews over the last few days. New Delhi authorities imposed a weekend lockdown, banning all non-essential movement within the city from Friday evening until 5am on Monday. Bengaluru was also placed under weekend curfew, while Mumbai faces nighttime restrictions.
This came after the national daily infection rate rose nearly four-fold over the last week, capped by a 21 percent jump on Saturday with more than 141,986 new cases reported, according to media reports.
Most other countries, including the UK, have chosen to err on the side of optimism. They believe they can ride out the Omicron wave without having to shut down again. Thailand too has eschewed lockdowns in favor of milder restrictions, like postponing the planned opening of pubs and bars.
Forecast for Thailand
Omicron is expected to take over from Delta as the dominant COVID-19 strain soon. The new variant was responsible for half of the infections confirmed at the Ramathibodi Hospital’s Centre for Medical Genomics in the past few days.
Dr. Opart Karnkawinpong, director-general of the Disease Control Department, said on Sunday that COVID-19 patients without severe symptoms will be urged to isolate at home and get treated based on their condition. For instance, they can drink a hot honey and lime drink to get over their sore throat or be prescribed green chiretta (Fah Talai Jone) tablets without having to go to a hospital.
“Home isolation will be the main mode of treatment, as we will reserve hospital beds for those with identified risks and serious conditions,” he said. He emphasized that only those who think their condition is worsening should go to the hospital.
Dr. Manoon Leechawengwongs, who specializes in pulmonary diseases and has been closely monitoring the pandemic, believes that most people will get infected by COVID-19 sooner or later. He urged people to keep their guard high to prevent infection but to not be too scared if they happen to catch Omicron.
“If we get infected, we just have to get treated,” he said, adding that the jabs will help reduce the severity of the disease.
Both Opart and Manoon appear convinced that widespread Omicron infection could effectively inoculate the population against COVID-19, perhaps bringing an end to the pandemic.
On Sunday, 8,511 new COVID-19 infections and 12 deaths were reported in Thailand. Last year, when Alpha and Delta spurred new waves of COVID-19, the percentage of deaths among patients was higher. For instance, on November 22 last year, 6,428 new infections brought a relatively high total of 49 deaths.
By Thai PBS World’s General desk