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More and more data indicate that the new omicron variant is spreading at great speed across European countries. A pace that surpasses the real-time detection capacity of surveillance systems, as cases must be confirmed by genetic sequencing — a process that, given its complexity, can take several days. The experts consulted consider that the most predictable thing over the next few weeks is “a substantial growth in omicron detections, which is already beginning to be noticed, until the new variant replaces the delta, something that could occur in about three weeks”, he explains. Federico García, head of Microbiology at Hospital San Cecilio (Granada), a reference center for eastern Andalusia.
This Monday morning, the United Kingdom warned that the new variant is spreading “at an extraordinary pace” and already accounts for 40% of cases detected in London. The country registered this morning the first death caused by omicrons in the world (of a person whose identity, gender or age were not revealed). An increase that is also taking place on the continent and about which the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) warned in its daily report on the micron. According to the document, in Europe — the organization gathers data from the countries of the European Union (EU), Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein — a total of 1,686 cases had been confirmed until midday on Monday.
That’s 920 more than yesterday, although most new cases are due to a change in Norway’s accounting. Until now, this country followed the same criteria as the others: considering as “confirmed” only cases with gene sequencing and “probable” those with a PCR test that raised suspicion about omicron — some PCR tests can anticipate the result with quite reliable, according to analysis of certain parts of the virus—relating to close contacts of a confirmed or probable case. From now on, Norway considers as “confirmed” both the cases of the first and the second group
The differences between countries are even more remarkable. Some of the smaller ones, such as Denmark, are among those with the most confirmations (195), which leads ECDC and experts to suspect that these cases are still provisional and would be more linked to the sequencing capacity of each country than to the sequencing capacity of each country. real circulation of the omicron among its citizens.
In this sense, ECDC emphasizes that “although the cases [da nova variante] early communications have been travel-related, an increasing number of them are now contagions occurring in European countries.” Preliminary results from analyzes of the European Surveillance System (TESS, an integrated epidemiological information network) show that only 13% of confirmed cases are now travel-related, while 70% of infections occurred locally (the report does not specify the origin of the other contagions).
However, as usually happens, this last percentage is affected by a certain bias: as outbreaks caused by the omicron variant are being investigated, its presence tends to gain greater weight. Despite this, ECDC considers that these data “indicate that community transmission [da variante ômicron] it may already be underway in European countries without having been detected” in all its magnitude.
Jordi Vila, head of the Microbiology service at Hospital Clínic (Barcelona), believes that the progressive implementation of omicron in Spain is the “most likely” scenario, according to the data that emerges. Still, he informs that so far has not been detected a significant increase in cases in tests carried out by his health center.
These data are increasingly convincing experts that the first of the three big questions that accompany the detection of any new variant — whether it is more contagious, more virulent and escapes the protection offered by vaccines and natural infection — already has an answer and is in the affirmative.
Regarding the second question, on the contrary, the first data that are being released, although very preliminary, point to a slight optimism. That is what Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the United States and medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said. According to Fauci, the first cases suggest that the new variant does not cause more severe conditions than the delta variant, and this explains why hospitalization rates “did not increase”.
“So far, the signs are a little encouraging, but we must be careful before concluding that [a ômicron] is less severe compared to the delta”, declared Fauci.
The fear of specialists and health authorities is that, if the omicron variant is really so contagious —even if it causes milder clinical conditions than the delta ones—, the volume of patients in absolute terms may be of such magnitude that it submits the systems of health under enormous pressure.
In this sense, the ECDC highlights that “in all cases for which information is available”, the infection was “mild or asymptomatic” and no deaths were recorded among people infected with the new variant. However, “these data must be analyzed with caution, as the number of confirmed cases is too small to understand whether the clinical manifestations of the omicron variant differ from those previously analyzed.”
The key factor at this point will be the third question: the effectiveness of available vaccines against omicron. The data collected, also preliminary, show a notable drop in protection against infection, which is almost always mild or asymptomatic, although there are still no conclusive analyzes that allow us to affirm that protection against serious illness and death has also decreased. For this reason, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have accelerated the administration of a third dose to the entire adult population.
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