I spend a lot of my free time these days studying data on the virus.
It’s partly a throwback to when I was researching my still unfinished novel on bioterrorism, where I got heavily interested in chemical and biological warfare, virology and pandemic studies.
It’s how I was able to say we were probably going into full lockdown in late February-early March 2020.
I find this stuff fascinating anyway; when your own health and safety and those of your family and friends are on the line it becomes even more compelling.
This is a blog about why we should be more optimistic this morning than we were when the restrictions were announced earlier in the week.
For those who say that the three weeks doesn’t really buy us anything but a delay to the inevitable, I would suggest that it’s not as clear-cut as it seems.
We are not seeing the growth pattern in this thing that would be expected if the R number was as high as initially supposed. This is complex, but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.
The expectation was that we were looking at a steep curve in cases that just went up and up and up. That is not happening in most places. Sure, the numbers skyrocketed at first – which was what people expected – but they have started to level off in several countries.
In South Africa, where this variant was discovered, they have started to loosen restrictions already and their scientists think this thing has peaked. In Scandinavia a similar pattern is starting to show.
It’s possible that it’s because people are limiting their interactions but that doesn’t really explain it.
There have been various estimates of the R number, which tells you how many people the average person gives this thing to. Yet the early estimates aren’t translating into the numbers, which is why the R number itself continues to drop.
That puzzles the data analysts who saw the initial rise in cases and expected it to keep going up at the same speed. So what explains that rapid initial rise if not a much more transmissible variant?
Well, some people have a theory.
They theorise that this variant causes symptom much faster, and that, along with re-infections and a certain amount of vaccine breakthrough, rather than a much higher R number, is what’s behind the spike in the numbers.
Which means this thing might not be significantly more infectious than Delta. Which is good news.
(It almost certainly is more infective, but estimates that it might be three or four times as fast moving seem to be way off the mark, and those are what a lot of the government’s worst case scenario projections are based on.)
Data from Norway strongly suggests that we’re looking at something which is still highly infectious but nowhere near as bad as we feared.
By their measurements, people are testing positive with this thing quicker than with Delta (estimates suggest it registers a positive case in half the time) and that’s why we’re seeing an initial spike.
Don’t forget, just two weeks ago the UKHSA estimated an R number between 3 and 5. Yesterday, in their published data, they estimated an R number of 1.2
We are definitely not in the very dark place some people thought we would be just a fortnight ago.
That, on its own, would be a major boost because it’s not quite moving fast enough to completely overwhelm us if we take some basic precautions.
But on its own this is not enough to get us out of trouble.
Even if this thing is only a little more virulent than Delta – and this, don’t forget, is a hypothesis; there’s good data behind it but it’s not a fact – and it can re-infect people who’ve had Delta, and break through vaccine protection then it’s pretty serious whether it works its way through the population at the speed Delta did or not.
Delta, remember, was a faster spreader than the original virus which is why it circled the world and replaced the initial strain.
The really good news is what’s supplementary to this theory.
The hard information to hand does – as we were hoping – suggest that this variant is a less virulent strain; in short, it’s less likely to put you in hospital and make you seriously ill.
It doesn’t matter whether that’s the vaccines holding up, the boosters, natural immunity or that that strain seems to multiply better in the airways than in the lungs … it’s less severe than the Delta wave.
The UK Health And Safety Agency reckons it’s between 30% and 40% less likely to send you to accident and emergency and 50% to 70% less likely to cause you to be admitted for an overnight stay.
Those numbers are massive, and highly encouraging.
So to summarise what some of the data suggests; this thing might not spread as quickly as we had feared. That and the lower rate of hospitalisations could – just could – see the next three weeks take us below the danger line.
But let’s not kid ourselves, we’re still in a heap of trouble.
Even with a lower virulence, this is not “the cold.”
This is not “the flu.”
The UK Health Foundation estimates that even the worst flu seasons have caused only one sixth of the deaths this virus caused last year.
One sixth, and that’s when you take into account social distancing and two full-scale lockdowns, without which this would have been several degrees of magnitude worse.
The WHO estimates that this bug kills ten times as many people as the flu does.
Global flu deaths on average are between 290,000 in a “good year” and 650,000 in a bad one. Deaths from this bug since it swept over us in 2020 are an estimated 5.3 million and that is widely believed to be a very optimistic figure.
I know it’s not sexy to respect the experts … but I do anyway.
Here in Scotland we still have Delta causing illness and death, and now we have Omicron at the same time, and although the graph is not shooting up as quickly or as severely as we were worried about, it’s still going up fast enough to cause concern, and that means that more people will end up in hospital than if we were dealing with Delta alone.
We’re not out of the woods by any manner of means.
We’re still in a bad spot.
But along with hints about a lower R number, the stuff on the virulence which came out yesterday and the good news about the Novovax vaccine and some extremely positive stuff about current and coming treatments (which will, in the long term, be more important even than the vaccines) it looks just possible that this wave isn’t going to be the tsunami we had feared.
And for all of us who want to get back to watching our team, that is very good news indeed. Because the full-scale disaster projections on which the government – rightly – based its recent decisions might not be coming to pass.
And that lets us return to normal much quicker than we otherwise might have. How much quicker will depend on the next batch of data.
But it will be in the Scottish Government’s hands when the review of the current measures takes place in three weeks. When that data is published – as it has to be – we’ll know where things stand.
But I’m going to say this at the outset; whilst the execution of the policy stinks to high heaven, and there is zero logic to it at all, the only thing the Scottish Government has done wrong here is punish football fans to make it look they’re doing something.
I would have wholeheartedly supported it had there been greater restrictions in wider society to reflect the seriousness of where this might have been going.
Nicola Sturgeon said that we couldn’t afford to wait for the data before we acted because then we’d be acting too late. Yet she did virtually nothing to prepare us for the wave that might have been on its way, or already rushing up the sand towards us.
They have fallen over their own feet in trying to do the bare minimum of good.
If this data is accurate then we’ve been very lucky indeed because if this was as bad as it might have been, we’d have squandered what precious time we had left to “protect Xmas” and then her puny measures at the expense of football fans would have been akin to putting a sticking plaster on a gunshot to the back of the head.