Twenty countries spanning four continents reported record numbers of Covid-19 cases in the past week, highlighting the strain that Omicron is exerting on the health systems of both rich and poor countries worldwide.
The World Health Organization has warned of an impending “tsunami” of infections since the highly transmissible coronavirus variant and the Delta strain circulate together.
At least five countries – including Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom – have experienced a surge of more than double the previously recorded peak in cases, according to Financial Times analysis.
The U.S. daily average of seven days of business came close to 300,000 on Wednesday, the highest daily score since the start of the pandemic, according to the FT’s data tracker.
Countries are also now testing much more than in earlier stages of the pandemic, but the share of tests that yields a positive result is climbing across the board, indicating that the increase in cases is real.
In several countries – including England, Canada and Denmark – test positivity has already climbed to a record high since widespread community testing began.
PCR and lateral flow tests are currently not available or difficult to obtain in a number of countries, including the UK and Italy.
Australia, which once followed a “zero-covid” policy, has seen an increase in infections that was about five and a half times its previously recorded peak, the analysis shows.
Early evidence indicates Omicron is less serious compared to previous variants. This may be because coronavirus has infected millions since it first appeared two years ago, giving those infected some immunity, and as a result of vaccination. However, it is not yet known whether Omicron is less virulent for those who have never been vaccinated or exposed to the virus, especially for those who are most vulnerable.
Public health experts have warned to underestimate the impact of Omicron after concluding that the disease is milder.
“The exponential increase in cases in countries and cities around the world could lead to health systems coming under increasing pressure,” Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, told the FT.
“A small percentage of a very large number of people can still fill hospitals and, on top of that, greatly increase the need for outpatient care,” she said.
The sharp increase in cases has already put pressure on hospitals in the US where states with high vaccination rates, including New York and the District of Columbia, are also experiencing an increase in infections.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that the state is deploying additional medical staff and increasing bed capacity as hospitalization rates increase but remain lower compared to the same time last year.
“We are basically preparing for a boom in January,” she said. “We know it’s coming.”
Mike Ryan, WHO director for emergencies, said it was likely that the virus would develop into an endemic phase, but “it is very unlikely that the virus itself will disappear completely”.
Since Omicron was first spotted in Southern Africa late last month, countries have been running to curb its spread by restricting travel or closing borders altogether and expanding reinforcement campaigns. Omicron appears to be more transmissible than Delta and can be pierced by immunity caused by vaccines and previous infection.
However, early evidence suggests that complete courses of existing vaccines may be less effective in controlling the variant. boosters can help restoration of that protection. For vaccines that are mostly used in poorer countries, that protection has been reduced even more. Johnson & Johnson was the latest company to say an extra dose of his vaccine helped Thursday against the variant.
In the two years since it was first detected, coronavirus has infected more than 284 million worldwide and killed more than 5.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, although both figures are likely to be significant underestimations.
Additional post by Martin Stabe in London