Has Omicron Changed the Evolution of the Pandemic?

JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2022 Jan 31;8(1):e35763. doi: 10.2196/35763.


Background: Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus carry differential risks to public health. The Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant, first identified in Botswana on November 11, 2021, has spread globally faster than any previous variant of concern. Understanding the transmissibility of Omicron is vital in the development of public health policy.

Objective: The aim of this study is to compare SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks driven by Omicron to those driven by prior variants of concern in terms of both the speed and magnitude of an outbreak.

Methods: We analyzed trends in outbreaks by variant of concern with validated surveillance metrics in several southern African countries. The region offers an ideal setting for a natural experiment given that most outbreaks thus far have been driven primarily by a single variant at a time. With a daily longitudinal data set of new infections, total vaccinations, and cumulative infections in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, we estimated how the emergence of Omicron has altered the trajectory of SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks. We used the Arellano-Bond method to estimate regression coefficients from a dynamic panel model, in which new infections are a function of infections yesterday and last week. We controlled for vaccinations and prior infections in the population. To test whether Omicron has changed the average trajectory of a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, we included an interaction between an indicator variable for the emergence of Omicron and lagged infections.

Results: The observed Omicron outbreaks in this study reach the outbreak threshold within 5-10 days after first detection, whereas other variants of concern have taken at least 14 days and up to as many as 35 days. The Omicron outbreaks also reach peak rates of new cases that are roughly 1.5-2 times those of prior variants of concern. Dynamic panel regression estimates confirm Omicron has created a statistically significant shift in viral spread.

Conclusions: The transmissibility of Omicron is markedly higher than prior variants of concern. At the population level, the Omicron outbreaks occurred more quickly and with larger magnitude, despite substantial increases in vaccinations and prior infections, which should have otherwise reduced susceptibility to new infections. Unless public health policies are substantially altered, Omicron outbreaks in other countries are likely to occur with little warning.

Keywords: Beta; COVID-19; Delta; Omicron; SARS-CoV-2; VOC; epidemiology; pandemic; public health; public health surveillance; sub-Saharan Africa; variant of concern.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Public Health
  • Public Health Surveillance
  • SARS-CoV-2