LONDON—The U.K. reported its highest daily number of cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday, as a senior British health official warned the fast-spreading Omicron variant posed the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic.
More than 78,600 cases of the virus were reported, compared with the U.K.’s previous peak of 68,053 reached in January, when the country’s hospitals were filling up with cases driven by the Alpha variant.
The U.K. has become a new focus for the Omicron outbreak since the variant was first identified and flagged to the world by scientists in South Africa three weeks ago.
Now present in more than 70 countries, Omicron’s rapid growth in the U.K. suggests it can outcompete the Delta variant, currently dominant in the U.S. and much of Europe. There is also evidence it is better than its predecessors at evading immunity from vaccines or previous infection.
The variant has spread so rapidly in the U.K. it has only just begun to be noticed in hospitals where Delta cases still dominate. So far, one person with Omicron has died, 11 other people confirmed to have the variant are in the hospital and another five hospitalized people are suspected to have Omicron.
Overall daily hospital admissions for Covid-19 have increased moderately in the latest week, averaging 760 in England in the seven days through Monday, according to the latest available data. Covid-19 deaths reported in the U.K. have been drifting down since early November, averaging 75 a day in the seven days through Tuesday.
Omicron infections, which are set to become dominant in the U.K. within days, are doubling every 1.9 days there, the head of the country’s Health Security Agency said.
The rate has accelerated,
told lawmakers. When cases of the variant were first identified in the U.K., they were doubling every four to five days, she said.
“The numbers that we see on data for the next few days will be quite staggering,” Dr. Harries said.
On Wednesday, the U.K. reported 4,671 confirmed new Omicron cases, an increase of 87% on all those previously identified and bringing the total to more than 10,000.
Officials say infections from the variant are much higher than reported cases, given asymptomatic infection and the lag time in testing and identifying it. They estimate Omicron infections could reach one million a day by Christmas Day and are promoting a booster program to get additional vaccine shots into the adult population.
“I’m afraid we have to be realistic that records will be broken a lot over the next few weeks as the rates continue to go up,” England’s Chief Medical Officer
So far, more than 46% of adults in the U.K. have had a booster dose, and the government is aiming to deliver one million shots a day by the end of the year. More than 650,000 boosters were administered Tuesday, Prime Minister
“The wave of Omicron continues to roll in across our United Kingdom,” Mr. Johnson said.
On Tuesday, the U.K. passed new legislation in light of Omicron, mandating masks in indoor public spaces and requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain entry to certain venues such as nightclubs. The government has also urged people to work from home where possible. Mr. Johnson has refused to rule out implementing further measures, but for now in England isn’t contemplating doing so. In Scotland, new guidance says no more than three households should mix at a time indoors.
According to Our World in Data, comparisons before Wednesday’s U.K. update showed weekly Covid-19 case rates in the U.K. running at more than double the rate in the U.S. as a proportion of the population—explained largely by the U.K.’s more extensive testing. Hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. were roughly double the per capita rates in the U.K.
Early studies of Omicron, which has mutations that make it more likely to spread faster and to be able to dodge antibodies produced by the body to fight it, suggest that booster shots can shore up defenses against it, where two shots appear less effective.
Scientists say it is too early to say whether the variant causes less or more severe outcomes than previous versions because of the lag between infection and hospitalization, but policy makers, healthcare workers and governments fear that, even if the variant is associated on average with milder disease, Omicron’s voracious spread could nevertheless overwhelm health systems.
Elsewhere in Europe, cases of Covid-19 also rose Wednesday. Italy reported about 23,000 confirmed infections, the highest daily count since March. On Wednesday, France reported 65,713 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily figure since April.
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