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UK to see ‘staggering’ omicron surge as it races to deploy boosters — and the world is watching closely


Members of the public queue for Covid-19 vaccinations and booster jabs at St Thomas’ Hospital on December 14, 2021 in London, England.

Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.K. is being engulfed by a tidal wave of Covid cases, with a growing number linked to the omicron Covid variant, as it races to give booster shots to as many people as possible.

Early studies show booster shots restore much of the vaccine protection lost through a natural waning of immunity and boost our bodies’ ability to fight the omicron variant if we become infected.

This has prompted the U.K., U.S. and countries across Europe to throw everything they can at accelerating their booster shot programs, given the urgent need to protect citizens and prevent health services from being overwhelmed.

The U.K. in particular is being closely watched as it is already seeing what Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned would be a “tidal wave” of Covid cases, even though it’s ahead of the U.S. and EU in terms of its booster shot deployment.

“The pace of [the booster] rollout across the four nations is such that the U.K. as a whole now has twice as many boosters per head as the EU and more than twice as many as the United States,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday as he urged the public to get boosted as soon as possible.

“So let’s keep going. Let’s carry on giving omicron both barrels. Let’s slow its spread and give the vaccines more time.”

In the U.K., over 24 million people have now received a booster shot, according to official data that states 43% of the population aged 12 and above have received their third shot.

The data is likely to refer to adults, however; since Wednesday, anyone in England who is 18 or over can book a booster dose, as long as they had their second dose at least three months ago. Those aged 16 or over can also book it they have a health condition that puts them at high risk from Covid.

More than 650,000 booster shots were administered in the U.K. on Wednesday alone in a national effort that is involving the army, mobile vaccination centers, pharmacies and legions of volunteers to get shots into arms as quickly as possible.

It comes as omicron cases double every two days across the country, prompting a further surge in Covid cases. On Wednesday, the U.K. reported its highest ever daily number of Covid cases since the pandemic began, with 78,610 new infections.

Booster rollout slower in U.S., EU

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website that the current 7-day moving average of daily new cases (118,515) is 37.3% higher than the previous 7-day moving average (86,315).

However, CDC data shows that only 30% of U.S. adults over the age of 18 have received a booster shot (52.3% of the over-65s have received a third dose).

In the EU, meanwhile, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows that, as of Dec.15, just over 81 million third doses had been delivered, equating to around 18% of the total population of the EU and European Economic Area (the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway).

Germany and France have seen around 28.7% and 27.3% respectively of their adult populations take up the booster shot, despite rampant Covid cases in both countries. Germany reported more than 51,000 new infections on Wednesday and France reported 63,000 new cases.

Dangers posed by omicron

Experts have judged omicron as being far more transmissible than the delta variant and believe it will soon become the dominant variant internationally.

It is too early to say whether it causes more severe illness as it was only designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.

The spread of the variant is also being aided and abetted by the winter in countries like the U.K., as there’s more indoor mixing and social gatherings in the run-up to Christmas. British experts are warning people to try to limit their socializing if at all possible.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency, said on Wednesday that growth of the omicron variant over the coming days would be “staggering” given the current rate of infection. On Wednesday, the U.K. recorded 4,671 new cases of omicron, the UKHSA tweeted, taking the total omicron case number to 10,017 cases. On Tuesday, the total number of omicron cases had stood at 5,346.

One bright spot for the U.K. could be the relative ease it has in encouraging vaccine uptake, as long lines outside vaccination centers this week demonstrate. The U.K. was one of the first countries to start vaccinating people and around 81% of the population aged 12 or over has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.

It also has a lower rate of vaccine hesitancy compared to many other countries. An Ipsos survey conducted in conjunction with the World Economic Forum this time last year — when Covid vaccines were only just starting to be rolled out in Britain — found that 77% of U.K. adults surveyed said they intended to receive a Covid vaccine, and hesitancy rates have fallen over the last year.

In comparison, 69% of those surveyed in the U.S. said they intended to get the vaccine and only 40% of adults asked in France intended to get the vaccine.

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