With the Omicron variant driving COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Canada to record levels, many are wondering when this latest wave will fade — and data from at home and abroad suggests it could be soon.
In South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, cases have already plummeted from their mid-December peak. Other southern African countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia have also seen infections rise and fall within a similar time frame.
Cases didn’t start rising in Canada, and much of the Western world, until about a month later. That suggests the Omicron wave could peak here in mid-to-late January before falling in February. Yet experts are wary about making a direct comparison.
“So far, the evidence suggests that this will be a very quick wave, because it’s infecting so many people so quickly,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist and professor at the University of Toronto.
“But these are very different populations we’re talking about here, so I hesitate to compare the two and say (southern Africa) points to what Canada and others will see.”
Omicron hit South Africa and neighbouring nations differently than the West, according to local studies. Hospitalizations crested at 40 per cent of previous waves, health officials there said in December, and deaths were relatively low.
Officials there also pointed to higher levels of previous infection of COVID-19 for the milder illnesses they’ve seen during this wave. A lower vaccination rate compared to the West — about 45 per cent of South African adults have been vaccinated as of Friday — allowed more people to get infected with other strains, including Delta.
Tom Koch, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the history and expansion of infectious diseases, points out that it’s even harder to compare Canada to other nations because of how vast our country is geographically. Health-care systems have struggled throughout the pandemic to balance the needs of urban centres with those in remote rural areas and First Nations.
Yet he also says Canada could very well see a short Omicron wave, like southern Africa did.
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“We have a much higher rate of vaccination, and we also have some previous infection here,” he said. “So it very well could be that this will be short and sweet, based on what we’re seeing elsewhere.”
Other countries that saw earlier surges fuelled by Omicron are showing positive signs. In the United Kingdom, for instance, cases have begun to plateau.
Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University in Coventry, England, told CNBC on Tuesday that “it does look as though cases are plateauing in London in the 18-50 age group.” However, he and other experts have said it’s still too soon to say if the wave will end quickly with the possibility that hospitalizations could spike in the coming weeks.
Canada is already seeing such a spike. On Wednesday, the number of people in hospital nationwide surpassed 5,000 for the first time since the pandemic began. The number has since climbed to nearly 6,000, including a record 790 patients in intensive care.
Health officials are now stressing that hospitalizations, not case counts, will be the true measure of the pandemic going forward as testing capacity is overwhelmed.
“Just because this could be over soon, that doesn’t mean we won’t be having a very difficult January, and that we need to move heaven and earth to respond to it,” Bowman said.
If cases do decline in February along with hospitalizations and deaths, it could also be the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic’s acute phase, if South African data is to be believed.
A study released late last month by the Steve Biko Academic Hospital Complex suggests that South Africa’s experience with Omicron may predict future waves that are more endemic, with disease becoming less severe as people build immunity from prior infection and vaccinations.
Koch says COVID-19’s three distinct waves have targeted the most susceptible populations available to the virus at a given time, starting with “native” COVID-19 with the elderly and followed by middle-aged adults with Delta. Now that Omicron is making its way through children and young adults, he says the virus will have fewer groups to infect in the future.
“The suspicion is Omicron will exhaust the population … so the majority of people will have one or another form of immunity,” he said. “That’s the hope.”
Anything that infects the population to the degree Omicron has would “have to be a completely different virus,” Koch says.
That’s why Bowman says Canada and the rest of the Western world should focus more on helping African countries and other developing nations get their populations vaccinated. He says Omicron emerged from conditions — low vaccination rates, few resources to mandate public health measures, widespread poverty — that will persist unless Western countries step up.
“We’ve done next to nothing to deal with these emerging variants globally,” he said. “And I think the real message with Omicron that we’ve completely missed is that we need to be looking outwards.”