Health experts have warned that Belgium is on the brink of a fifth coronavirus wave driven by the Omicron variant, which is expected to be reflected in Friday's coronavirus figures published by the Sciensano health institute.
The new variant has become the dominant variant in Belgium and is spreading like wildfire. Although the average number of new coronavirus infections identified on a daily basis was 21% lower than last week, this steady decrease is expected to abruptly halt on Friday.
"That's because the weekly average is calculated on the figures from today to 26 December. But there was a holiday in between. Since 27 December, we have seen a first major increase," biostatistician Geert Molenberghs told Het Nieuwsblad.
On Monday, the number of new cases once again skyrocketed to more than 13,000 after dropping to around 7,000 for several days. This will be reflected in the average weekly figures on Friday when the decline is expected to drop to 6%, Molenberghs said. This decline will then be reversed and an increase of around 10% is expected by the following week.
"When you see the unprecedented figures abroad, you know that we are only at the beginning," he said. Several countries, including France and the United Kingdom, have been shattering previous daily records since the start of the pandemic as a result of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
Most rapid spread in Brussels
A month ago, the Omicron variant accounted for just 0.3% of all cases in Belgium. But as of Monday, it makes up almost 80% of confirmed cases, according to Molenberghs. In just five weeks, the new variant has overtaken Delta, which took three months to become the dominant variant.
Virologist Steven Van Gucht said that the tipping point was reached around Christmas but added that it remains unclear just how explosive the increase will be, stressing that this depends on behaviour and measures to prevent its spread.
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"We can't really rely on the figures from other countries because those things vary from country to country. In the UK, there is clearly an explosion but they are much less strict there," he argued.
In Belgium, the most rapid surge in cases is being reported in Brussels, where cases have already increased by 10% since last week. Flemish Brabant, which surrounds Brussels, is expected to follow this trend.
The strain is mainly circulating among people in their twenties in the capital city, as these people tend to have more close contacts and are less likely to be vaccinated than older people.
When or whether this increase in cases will have an impact on the number of hospitalisations and deaths remains to be seen: the impact of the Omicron variant on both remains unclear, as does the exact efficacy of the current vaccines against the mutation.
A British study carried out by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) showed that the Omicron variant leads to severe illness and hospitalisation less often than previous strains. This was reflected in data shared by the World Health Organisation (WHO), but it stressed that the threat from the new strain remains high.