The UK braces for 1 million omicron cases as Covid variant spread is called 'enormously worrying'
- The increase in omicron cases in the U.K. is on such steep trajectory that the country's health security agency has issued a stark warning.
- Omicron cases are doubling every 2-3 days.
- One expert told CNBC that the steep rise in omicron cases is "enormously worrying."
LONDON — The increase in omicron Covid cases in the U.K. is on such steep trajectory that the country has been warned to prepare for one million cases by the end of the month.
The UK Health Security Agency said Wednesday that omicron is displaying a significant growth advantage over the delta variant, "meaning that it is likely to outcompete delta in the U.K. and become the dominant variant."
This assessment is based on analysis of U.K. data showing increased household transmission risk, increased secondary attack rates (such as the chance of each case infecting another individual) and increased growth rates compared to delta, the UKHSA said.
"If the growth rate and doubling time continue at the rate we have seen in the last 2 weeks, we expect to see at least 50% of coronavirus cases to be caused by omicron variant in the next 2 to 4 weeks," it said in a statement.
Currently, the U.K. has recorded 568 confirmed cases of the variant, but the U.K.'s Health Secretary Sajid Javid told British lawmakers Wednesday evening that "we know that the actual number of infections will be significantly higher."
"The UK Health Security Agency estimates that the [current] number of infections will be around 20 times higher than the number of confirmed cases and so the number of infections is closer to 10,000," he said.
"At the current observed doubling rate of between two and a half and three days by the end of this month infections could exceed a million," Javid warned, saying the U.K. faced what he called the "twin threats from both omicron and the delta variant, which makes up the bulk, still, of global cases.
The omicron variant was first spotted in South Africa in early November and reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. The WHO labelled it a "variant of concern" two days later, noting it had mutations associated with increased transmissibility.
Since then, the variant has been identified in 57 countries across the world, according to the WHO's latest tally, and there are increasing cases of community transmission with no links to travel.
Experts and vaccine makers have scrambled to assess the variant's risk profile. They are particularly focused on how fast it spreads, whether it causes more severe illness and could lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, and whether it will undermine Covid vaccines.
Preliminary data, anecdotal evidence and a small number of early studies suggest that the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant, but causes milder illness and could undermine the effectiveness of Covid vaccines currently in use.
However, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19 stressed Wednesday that it is "too early to conclude" that omicron symptoms are weaker. The WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that omicron could change the course of the pandemic.