Twenty countries spanning four continents have reported record-breaking numbers of Covid-19 cases in the past week, highlighting the strain Omicron is exerting on the health systems of both rich and poor nations globally.
The World Health Organization has warned of an impending “tsunami” of infections as the highly transmissible coronavirus variant and the Delta strain circulate together.
At least five countries — including Australia, Denmark and the UK — have experienced a surge of more than double the previous recorded peak in cases, according to Financial Times analysis.
The US seven-day rolling average of cases neared 300,000 on Wednesday, its highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic, according to the FT’s data tracker.
Countries are also testing much more now than at earlier stages of the pandemic, but the share of tests that return a positive result is climbing across the board, indicating that the surge 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 unavailable or difficult to obtain in a number of countries, including the UK and Italy.
Australia, which once pursued a “zero-Covid” policy, has had a surge in infections around five and a half times its previously recorded peak, the analysis shows.
However, South Africa, one of the first nations to detect Omicron, late last month, said on Thursday that it believed it had passed the peak of its fourth wave driven by the variant, and lifted a midnight to 4am curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect.
The country made the changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination and available capacity in the health sector, said Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency.
Data from the health department showed a 29.7 per cent fall in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25, compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said.
South Africa, with close to 3.5m infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts.
Early evidence also suggests that Omicron is less severe compared with previous variants. This may be because coronavirus has infected millions since it first emerged two years ago, giving those infected some immunity, and because of vaccination. It is not yet known, however, 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 against underestimating the impact of Omicron after concluding that the disease is milder. “The exponential increase in cases in countries and cities around the world can result in health systems coming under increasing strain,” 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 moreover increase the need for outpatient care tremendously.”
The sharp rise in cases has placed a strain on hospitals in the US where states with high vaccination rates, including New York and the District of Columbia, are experiencing a jump in infections.
Kathy Hochul, New York governor, said on Wednesday that the state was deploying additional medical staff and increasing bed capacity as hospitalisation rates increased but remained lower compared with the same time last year.
“We’re basically preparing for a January surge,” she said. “We know it’s coming.” New York state reported 74,207 Covid-19 cases on Thursday, another all-time high, and 7,373 hospitalisations.
Mike Ryan, WHO director for emergencies, said it was probable that the virus would evolve into an endemic phase, but “the virus itself is very unlikely to go away completely”.
Since Omicron was first detected in southern Africa, nations have raced to stem its spread by restricting travel or closing borders altogether and expanding booster campaigns. Omicron appears to be more transmissible than Delta and able to pierce through immunity caused by vaccines and prior infection.
Early evidence indicates full courses of existing vaccines could be less effective in combating the variant, though boosters can help restore some of that protection. For vaccines used mostly in poorer nations, that protection is even more diminished. Johnson & Johnson was the latest company to say an extra dose of its vaccine helped against the variant on Thursday.
In the two years since it was first detected, coronavirus has infected more than 284m globally, killing more than 5.4m, according to Johns Hopkins University, though both figures are probably significant underestimates.
Additional reporting by Martin Stabe in London