Coronavirus – bioinformaticians: Omikron leads to high incidence among 20 to 30 year olds

Young people would have more contacts, they would have had good protection against Delta, but Omikron is now leading to increased infections, said Moritz Gerstung in an interview (picture alliance / dpa / picture alliance)

More than 78,000 new infections in one day: More than ever in the course of the pandemic were reported in Great Britain on December 15, 2021. The omicron variant is spreading rapidly there. The cases double about every two days. The UK government’s chief adviser warned that many records would be broken in the coming days. Scientists in Germany are also warning against the new variant.

The strong increase in Omikron’s share of the infections will continue in Great Britain, said the bioinformatician Moritz Gerstung on Deutschlandfunk. Gerstung worked on the Wellcome Genome Campus in Great Britain, where he also researched the evolution and spread of different Sars-CoV-2 variants in the course of the pandemic. While the delta variant took about three months to become the dominant variant, only one month can be expected with Omikron, said Gerstung. It is also to be expected that the spread in Germany will be similar.

Gerstung: Think about stepping up the measures.

What is striking about the spread of Omikron is that it has a very high incidence, especially among 20 to 30-year-olds. “This is probably due to the fact that these groups have the highest social contacts, but have so far also been very well protected by their vaccination against the Delta variant.” They had previously seen fewer cases there than in other age groups, and that now seems to be reversing.

The same measures must be taken against Omikron as against the Delta variant, said Gerstung. People who have already been vaccinated should also refresh their protection in good time. On the one hand because the protection decreases over time, on the other hand because Omikron requires an even higher immune protection to prevent infection. In addition to the vaccination, it is also important to reduce contacts or reduce the risk of infection when meeting with masks or ventilation. Since Omikron is more contagious than Delta, one should think about intensifying these measures.

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The interview in full:

Lennart Pyritz: When will Omikron dominate the UK?

Moritz Gerstung: The data modeling says that around 50 percent of the cases are already going back to the Omikron variant and that the sharp increase will continue, so that a majority of the cases must really be expected in a few weeks.

Pyritz: What characterizes the current spread of the Omikron variant in Great Britain, also in comparison to the spread of the Delta variant, which you have traced in detail with research colleagues?

Gerstung: What has really never been seen before at Omikron is the rapid expansion. It is around three to four times faster than what we saw at Delta. With Delta we saw an increase of about 10 percent per day, that’s nearly 40 percent with Omikron, and therefore we also expect that Omikron will probably become the dominant variant within a month since the first detection. At Delta, the whole thing took about three months.

Gerstung: Strikingly high incidence among 20 to 30 year olds with Omikron

Pyritz: Which population groups are currently particularly affected by Omicron infections, how exactly is the data broken down in Great Britain?

Gerstung: We actually see Omikron in all population groups, but what is noticeable is that there is a very high incidence, especially among the 20 to 30 year olds. This is probably due to the fact that these groups have the highest social contacts, but have so far also been very well protected by their vaccination against the Delta variant. There tended to be fewer cases there than in other age groups, and that now seems to be reversing.

Pyritz: Will the Omikron wave superimpose the still ongoing delta wave for a while, will these waves exist in parallel or do model calculations expect the Omikron Delta to replace the Delta relatively abruptly and quickly?

Gerstung: That is still not entirely certain. Due to the strong increase, it is to be expected that the Omikron variant will represent the absolute majority of cases. To what extent this will lead to a total disappearance of the delta variant, we do not yet know, it depends a little on the cross immunity. However, measures have of course already been taken such as accelerated boosters, but of course also contact restrictions that are imposed or that people then perceive themselves, which mean that the delta variant is likely to decline.

Gerstung: Similar developments are to be expected in Germany

Pyritz: In Denmark a similar picture emerges with regard to the spread of Omikron, in Germany even fewer cases are known. What are your expectations as a bioinformatician, will this Omikron development also be evident in other European countries, including Germany, in the near future as it is in Great Britain?

Gerstung: I guess that’s to be expected. What we have seen with other variants is that the relative spread actually happens according to a universal pattern, i.e. the increase in alpha compared to the variants prevailing at the time occurred in almost all countries with a time delay, but at a similar rate. It was similar with Delta. We would therefore expect that the Omikron variant will now also spread in other countries at a similar speed, but with a little delay.

Pyritz: We have now talked a lot about expectations – how reliable are forecasts and model calculations for the spread of Omikron with the current data situation? How great is the uncertainty?

Gerstung: What is very difficult and almost impossible to predict is how the absolute number of cases will develop, at least if you think over a horizon of several months. What can be predicted very well, however, is the relative proportion of variants, because it ultimately only depends on the virus itself. The total number of cases depends on many other factors – immunity, people’s behavior, but also of course measures taken to contain the spread, which makes predictions difficult. But predicting how high the proportion of the variant is has always succeeded in the past with very good accuracy for all worrying variants.

Pyritz: In order to understand what proportion a variant has, the close-knit sequencing of virus samples, genetic samples, is very important. What are the differences between Great Britain and Germany? You worked on campus in the UK, which is where most of the sequencing is done in the UK.

Gerstung: In the UK, around 15 to 20 percent of all positive coronavirus cases are sequenced by my colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and we then evaluated this data promptly for our research purposes. Sequencing is also carried out in Germany, but the difference is that it takes place much more centrally in Great Britain, and this sequence data, which then comes from a single source, so to speak, is then sequenced and analyzed with a cycle time of about six days and then also the health authorities and shortly thereafter also stored in international databases.

As far as I know, this is much more decentralized in Germany. Most of the testing there takes place in private laboratories, which also do a lot of sequencing, but that’s why it’s harder to say how fast it actually happens. But of course there are also questions about the individual data quality and also the annotation, i.e. the origin of the samples, which makes the analysis a little more difficult.

“The measures against Omikron are essentially the same as against previous variants”

Pyritz: You have just mentioned the countermeasures briefly. Boris Johnson is now relying heavily on boosting in Great Britain in order to curb the Omikron wave, which other measures are decisive from your perspective as a bioinformatician in Great Britain, but then perhaps also in Germany with a little more view into the future, in order to To at least slow down and weaken the wave?

Gerstung: The measures against Omikron are essentially the same as against previous variants. One has to prevent contagion, and the best way to do that is through vaccination. Here, on the one hand, due to the chronological sequence, the booster is of course extremely important, because those who had their first and second vaccinations in the summer have probably already lost their vaccination protection. In addition, due to the changed genetic profile, Omikron can at least partially bypass immune protection, which is why even higher immune protection is required to prevent infection.

In addition, of course, there is also the measure of contact reduction, so that you simply do not come into contact with so many people who are possibly contagious. That can either be less or the corresponding framework conditions have changed, for example, that people meet outside instead of inside, wear masks or ventilate. And I think that there you have to think about intensifying these measures in view of this more contagious variant.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

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