Omicron May be Headed For a Rapid Drop in U.S. and Britain

A patient arrives in an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

Scientists are seeing signals that COVID-19′s alarming omicron wave may have peaked in Britain and is about to do the same in the U.S., at which point cases may start dropping off dramatically.

The reason: The variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.

The University of Washington’s own highly influential model says the number of daily reported cases in the U.S. will crest at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and will then fall sharply “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” according to Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the university.

In fact, he said, by the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the U.S. — an estimate that includes people who were never tested — has already peaked, hitting 6 million on Jan. 6.

In Britain, meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases dropped to about 140,000 a day in the last week, after skyrocketing to more than 200,000 a day earlier this month, according to government data.

Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, said European countries that impose lockdowns won’t necessarily come through the omicron wave with fewer infections; the cases may just be spread out over a longer period of time.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there have been 7 million new COVID-19 cases across Europe in the past week, calling it a “tidal wave sweeping across the region.” WHO cited modeling from Mokdad’s group that predicts half of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron within about eight weeks.

By that time, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be past the omicron surge.

“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I would hope that by Easter, we will be out of this,” Hunter said.

Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, said aid Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

All the new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, could render the coronavirus something with which we can more easily coexist.

“At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of COVID,” Meyers said. “At some point, we’ll be able to draw a line — and omicron may be that point — where we transition from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that’s a much more manageable disease.”

That’s one plausible future, she said, but there is also the possibility of a new variant — one that is far worse than omicron — arising.

Reporting by the Associated Press.