Omikron already dominant in late December: “At this rate, half the population will be reinfected”. This is what is happening throughout Europe.

The speed at which omikron is advancing is worrying biostatistician Tom Wenseleers.  – © Dirk Vertommen

“If we don’t speed up the booster campaign, omikron will account for more than 90 percent of all infections in Belgium before the end of December. Then a corona wave will be upon us on the order of magnitude of the first or second wave.” Biostatistician Tom Wenseleers of KU Leuven is anything but confident. “There is a real chance that the pressure on our healthcare will become unsustainable.”

Kristof Simoens

While corona rates continue to decline and the peak of the fourth wave is behind us, specialists are watching the global rise of the omikron variant with concern. “The speed at which it is advancing is particularly worrying,” says biostatistician Tom Wenseleers of KU Leuven. “In South Africa, the infection record of the first corona-pic has been broken in a few weeks. The R-value is estimated at about 3, which means that one infected individual infects three others. That’s when things get particularly fast. If I extrapolate those figures to our country, omikron will account for more than 90 percent of all infections with us before the end of December.” By comparison, according to virologist Marc Van Ranst, omikron accounted for 3 percent of the samples on Monday; about ten days ago it was only 0.3 percent. So a tenfold increase in about the same number of days.

But surely our vaccination rate is a lot higher than that of South Africa?

“That’s right: only a quarter has been vaccinated there; all the others have to rely on their naturally built-up immunity after a previous infection. And that is disappointing, now that it appears that omikron is able to circumvent that immunity four to five times better than the delta variant. Unfortunately, omikron is also breaking through in countries with high vaccination rates, such as the United Kingdom. Or look at Denmark, where omikron takes the mark of half of all infections this week.”

You do sound very alarming.

“Alarming? No, rather realistic. The numbers are what they are. And they don’t look good. At this rate, about half the population will become reinfected and 1 percent of them will be in danger of ending up in the hospital. Then a corona wave comes at us on the order of magnitude of the first wave or the second wave. It is very questionable whether our hospitals can take that extra pressure now.”

Fortunately, omikron is less sickening!

“Based on the South African figures, such a conclusion is premature at best. Not only because the figures come with a week’s delay – and with such a rapidly advancing virus, a week is a very long time – but also because omikron in South Africa started mainly in the teens and twenties, and they are less at risk anyway. But when I look at the figures from Tshwane, where the outbreak is concentrated, I’m not reassured: of the 166 patients who ended up in hospital there in the past two weeks because of omikron, nine have died; 33 patients were over 60 and of them five have already died. That’s not nothing. Besides, even if omikron were ten times less pathogenic than the delta variant, there’s still a real chance that the pressure on our care will become unsustainable.”

So what should be done?

“I don’t know either: I don’t have a ready-made solution, if I’m completely honest. I’m impatiently waiting for the booster campaign to be accelerated here in Belgium as well. Especially for people who are more at risk, such as the over 60s and the over 40s and over 50s with a specific risk profile. Although we must all realize that the protection will still not be optimal.”

And just now there is the news that numerous centers are taking their belts off between Christmas and New Year.

“There is indeed a bottleneck at the vaccination centers, and I understand very well that volunteers also need vacations. Perhaps we should do as the British do: they want to administer 1 million booster shots a day and are deploying the army to do it. Although I also hear that our army is understaffed. I am pinning all my hopes on a new vaccine or one adapted to omikron, but that will also take a few months to develop and administer: BioNTech, for example, spoke of a hundred days. And so there is only one thing to do: give everyone a booster shot as soon as possible.”