Pandemic versus Endemic: What the numbers tell us about Omicron

On Saturday, the World Health Organisation reported a staggering 3,652,595 new cases worldwide, a new record of new infections that we haven’t seen since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Just a little bit more than a month ago, the daily average of new infection was under 300,000!

For the past week, the average has been well above the 2.5 million, almost 10 times November and December’s numbers. Scary stuff this Omicron, isn’t it?

Not so, scientists say. On the contrary, actually. Many of them, including the highest epidemic expert in the United States, say those numbers offer hope that we may be nearing the end of the pandemic. How so?

There seems to be a growing consensus, yet timid and slow, that we will never be able to get rid of the coronavirus but 2022 will be the year it will move from pandemic to endemic — meaning that it will continue to infect people, probably in bigger numbers, but will not disrupt life, just like the seasonal flu.

Doesn’t make sense still?

Let us look at the numbers. The infection numbers are exponentially higher than anything we have seen in the past two years. France, for example, reported an astonishing 460,000 cases on Wednesday, in a country with a population of 65 million.

Omicron has been doing the rounds with at least ten times higher transmission rate than its predecessor, Delta or the original Covid-19 virus. It is more contagious and quicker. Sure. But Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the US president, has a very different take on those numbers.

He says the hospitalisation numbers are “the more relevant marker of viral damage”, not the number of new cases. And so does the measure of success in containing the outbreak. It is no longer about reducing the number of daily cases but more about keeping people safe and the economy running.

A study published on January 12 by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that looked at data from 69,279 patients (52,297 with the Omicron variant, 16,982 with the Delta variant) between November 30, 2021, and January 1, 2022 in California gives more credence to that argument.

The study found that “Omicron cases resulted in 53 per cent less risk of hospitalisation, 74 per cent less risk of ICU admission, and 91 per cent less risk of death. The study also found that none of the patients with Omicron required mechanical ventilation.” Other studies conducted in South Africa, Hong Kong and other countries showed more or less similar encouraging results.

Almost no symptoms

I have had several friends and colleagues who tested positive in the past two weeks. The coronavirus infection is not what it once was, believe me. Apart from being bored because of the 10-day quarantine, their time was almost all spent on emails, social media and Netflix; they have had almost no symptoms. Probably some headache, a running nose and tiredness in the first two or three days. But that is all about it.

Medical experts now say the risk that a vaccinated adult will die of Omicron is lower than the risk of seasonal flu death, God forbid. So, what do we make of all these numbers?

Omicron, while certainly still a risk to those unvaccinated folks, might actually be the acrimonious development, the bitter pill the world has been waiting for to get rid of the pandemic. More and more experts are becoming convinced that both the symptoms and the hospitalisation numbers of Omicron offer hope that we might be moving from a state of pandemic to a state of endemic.

WHO defines a pandemic as a virus that has exponential growth of infection “covering a wide area, affecting several countries and populations”. An endemic, meanwhile, is “a disease outbreak that is consistently present but limited to a particular region. This makes the disease spread and rates predictable”, according to the organisation’s website. Malaria, for example, is considered an endemic in certain countries and regions. Its growth rate, however, is very limited to specific area and health prerequisites.

A good part of the solution

In less medical terms, pandemics are scary disruptive thing. Endemics, on the other hand, are viruses that we have been living with for thousands of years. The seasonal flu is endemic. It is sometimes deadly but predictable. We have the required medicine for it, and life goes on. Thus the coronavirus, even though it still is a problem, has become a good part of the solution. The more people infected with Omicron, experts believe, the faster we reach herd immunity.

It is unlikely we will be able to completely eradicate Covid-19. That never happened, ever. Few decades ago, the world celebrated the eradication of smallpox. But from time to time, we hear of reports of its resurgence somewhere. But few people believe we can do that with Covid-19.

Thus, scientists are hopeful that with the nature of Omicron — its symptoms and health impact, we may be onto something close to be able to live with it, meaning Covid-19 may be becoming more of an endemic than a pandemic — a virus that will not disrupt life, will not close schools, shut business, ground aeroplanes or crash financial markets.

The skyrocketing oil prices is being considered as a validation of this theory. And that most probably explains why world governments keep telling us that lockdowns are now something of the past.

Let us hope 2022 is the year we move from pandemic to endemic.