More than two-thirds of omicron cases are reinfections, study suggests


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

Omicron has almost completely replaced the previously dominant delta variant of Covid-19 in England, a new study has found, with the vast majority of cases being possible reinfections.

Imperial College London’s REACT study — which has been updated monthly since May 2020 and is funded by the U.K. government — analyzed 100,607 PCR test results from across England. Swabs were collected between Jan. 5 and Jan. 20.

The study found that 99% of sequenced positive swabs came from people infected with the omicron variant, with only 1% of infections being caused by the delta variant.

“We observed unprecedented levels of infection with SARS-CoV-2 in England in January 2022 and almost complete replacement of delta by omicron,” the study’s authors said in their paper released Wednesday.

Reinfection capability

Omicron is a heavily mutated, highly infectious variant of Covid that has been identified by health authorities in at least 171 countries, and which has led to record numbers of Covid cases in many countries.

On Monday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the organization’s executive board that since the variant was identified nine weeks ago, more than 80 million Covid cases had been reported to the WHO — more than were reported in the whole of 2020. Last week, an average of 100 cases were reported every three seconds, Tedros said, and someone lost their life to the virus every 12 seconds.

The latest REACT study found that although coronavirus infections declined in England in early January, they then “plateaued at a high level,” with one in 23 people infected.

Of the tests taken in the study’s latest round, 4.4% were positive, marking a threefold increase from December.

On Tuesday, the U.K. provisionally recorded 94,326 new Covid cases and 439 deaths within 28 days of a positive test result. In late December, Covid infections peaked in the country when it recorded 246,415 positive test results in one day.

England is set to scrap most of its few remaining Covid measures on Thursday, when mask wearing will no longer be mandated and the public will no longer be advised to work from home. Almost 85% of the country’s eligible population — those over the age of 12 — is fully vaccinated against Covid, while 64% have received a booster shot.

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