Omicron could drive Covid cases to hit 90k a day by Christmas as ‘super-mutant’ becomes dominant

OMICRON could drive Covid cases up to 90,000 per day by Christmas, experts predict – higher than ever seen before in the UK. 

Infections of the super mutant strain are currently doubling around every three days, possibly less.

Following this trajectory, the strain could become dominant within around a month, overthrowing Delta.

But while the two compete, experts say it is “realistic” to assume both will cause tens of thousands of infections in the next three weeks.

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London and a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, said she expects around “40,000 cases of Omicron per day” by Christmas Day.

That’s based on a growth rate of 25 per cent per day, as seen in the hardest hit province of South Africa, Gauteng. 

Added on to a similar number from Delta – with currently 43,000 cases a day on average – it could see infections near 90,000 in England alone. 

“And the nature of exponential growth is that things get rapidly much worse – Omicron cases could continue to double every 3-4 days leading to well over 100K cases a day v fast,” the professor wrote on Twitter.

She said if measures were taken to slow Omicron's growth rate to a more optimistic 15 per cent per day, there could be half the number of cases by Christmas Day (50,000).

Prof Pagel said the “reality is far more complicated” than models.

However, the 90K-per-day estimations are “not unrealistic”, said Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) – formerly Public Health England.

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UKHSA says there are 336 cases of Omicron detected so far, comprised of 261 in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales.

But the true figure is more like 1,000 to 2,000, according to Prof Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and lead of the Covid outbreak tracking study ZOE.

Implications of mild disease

He said that there could be many people in the community who do not know they have the virus if it is causing more mild disease, as some early data from South Africa indicates. 

Prof Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director, UCL Genetics Institute, UCL, said: “If it were to be confirmed that Omicron causes on average less severe symptoms than Delta, its current frequency in the UK may be underestimated, as people infected with Omicron may be less likely to come forward to get tested.

🔵 Read our Omicron variant live blog for the latest news

“At this stage, Omicron represents only a small fraction of all Covid-19 cases in the UK, with the Delta variant still causing the bulk of cases (~99 per cent).

“This situation is likely to change in the near future with the number of Omicron cases doubling roughly every three to days [sic].

“If this rate of increase were maintained, Omicron would be expected to become the most widespread variant in the UK within a month or so.”

Prof Balloux added that “Omicron seems to be more transmissible primarily because it is more likely to (re-)infect people”. 

But it may also be because there is a shorter number of days between exposure to the virus, and symptoms showing.

The Health Secretary Sajid Javid said yesterday analysis by UKHSA suggests “that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than the Delta variant”.

It could make contact tracing and containing the virus harder if people become contagious to others quicker than the current five to six days.

The theory that it is more mild than previous strains is being taken by some as positive news.

Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said it was “too early to tell” if this was true, and it may be because the virus is infecting people with some immunity from natural infection or vaccination.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that even if a small number of people get severely sick with Omicron, “a small fraction of a really big number can still cause problems”.

Experts have previously said the number of people who are at risk of hospitalisation could be enough to put pressure on the NHS.

There are still at least five million people in the UK who are unvaccinated and more susceptible to the virus than anyone else.

It comes as the Health Sec Mr Javid warned that the Omicron variant is now circulating within the community, and is not just linked to travel.

Mr Javid told MPs on Monday that "multiple regions of England" were seeing cases of the variant that were not linked to international travel.

And he said he could not guarantee the variant would not "knock us off our road to recovery", as he said the "the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron".

He announced new rules that will see travellers having to take a pre-departure test before travelling to England from Tuesday.

It came after Boris Johnson admitted he couldn't rule out snap Covid restrictions over Christmas.

Downing Street said the PM would make an announcement before MPs break up for their holidays on December 16.

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