- Public health experts say the virus is too unpredictable to determine whether the new variant is approaching a peak in South Africa or if cases will continue to increase.
- South Africa reported a record number of new daily coronavirus cases on Wednesday, indicating that the fourth wave may be far from over.
- Though the Delta waves lasted, on average, about 2 months, Omicron is a new variant with different traits.
Omicron was first detected in South Africa about a month ago and quickly triggered a surge of new but mostly milder infections.
Some epidemiologists suspect cases may be plateauing in the region and that Omicron may be nearing its peak in South Africa.
But many public health experts say the virus is too unpredictable to determine whether the new variant is approaching a peak in South Africa or if cases will continue to increase.
On Wednesday, South Africa reported a record number of new daily coronavirus cases, indicating that the fourth wave may be far from over.
The coronavirus has shown us time and time again that it’s near impossible to predict what comes next.
“The only thing that’s certain is that Omicron is going to guarantee another winter wave of COVID,” said Andrew Noymer, PhD, a University of California Irvine epidemiologist and demographer who studies infectious diseases.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College, says it’s very difficult to predict when a peak of infections will occur.
“You can make reasonable projections based on how rapidly the case counts are increasing [and] based on the heights of previous peaks — but it’s a fraught exercise,” Landrigan said.
There are many contributing factors that influence how a virus will behave in a population, including what season it is, how many people were previously infected with COVID and the percentage of the population that has been fully vaccinated and boosted.
Looking back at Delta, India experienced a peak in May. Back in the United States, the first Delta cases were identified in March, but the Delta wave didn’t start to speed up until July.
Though the Delta waves lasted, on average, about 2 months, Omicron is a new variant with different traits.
Different areas now have higher levels of immunity as a result of Delta infections and vaccinations, which will inevitably impact when Omicron cases will peak from place to place.
Delta continues to be the dominant variant in the United States, but many epidemiologists think Omicron will soon displace Delta.
Omicron appears to be more contagious than Delta, suggesting it will move more quickly through the population.
“The thing that I think is most key, in terms of the takeaway lesson for Omicron, is that it’s going to displace Delta,” Noymer said. “It’s outcompeting Delta — it’s not going to be a variant that fizzles.”
Noymer strongly believes Omicron will trigger a winter wave in the United States, largely fueled by an increase in breakthrough cases.
“We’ll see more breakthrough infections because it’s further from the vaccine, and we’ll see more cases in naive people,” Noymer said.
When a peak will happen in the United States is unclear, but some public health officials suspect Omicron will surge, then peak, sometime in January.
That said, it’s possible that some areas may continue to be hard-hit by Delta, while others get slammed by Omicron.
“The U.S. is a big country with a lot of regional variation,” says Landrigan.
Furthermore, what happens in South Africa may not necessarily occur in other regions due to the differences in seasonality and immunity from vaccinations and prior infection.
In order to better understand the impact Omicron will have on the pandemic, Landrigan is monitoring three things: how contagious Omicron is, the severity of illness it causes, and whether it’s able to evade some of the protection conferred by the vaccines.
The answer to the first question — whether Omicron is more contagious than Delta — appears to be a resounding yes, says Landrigan.
Omicron does not appear to cause more severe illness compared to Delta — if anything, it seems to cause milder symptoms.
The third question — whether or not Omicron evades the vaccines — has yet to be answered.
In generally healthy people, two doses of the vaccine appear to provide strong protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. A booster shot can enhance protection so that the chances of contracting a mild or asymptomatic infection are low.
People who had their second dose months ago, and may therefore have waning antibody levels, may be more prone to a breakthrough infection.
As scientists learn more about Omicron, and as the variant continues to spread, epidemiologists will have a clearer picture of how the Omicron-fueled waves will play out across the world.
Some epidemiologists suspect cases may be plateauing in the region and that Omicron may be nearing its peak in South Africa. But many public health experts say the virus is too unpredictable to determine whether the new variant is approaching a peak in South Africa or if cases will continue to increase.
It’s widely agreed that Omicron will soon outcompete Delta and that the new variant will trigger a fourth winter wave. But when that wave peaks will likely vary from place to place depending on the season, level of vaccination, and amount of prior infections in the community.