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Epidemiologist’s grim forecast for Australia

by Anthony L. Gonzalez

A leading epidemiologist has warned that Australia is heading for 50 COVID-19 deaths daily as more transmissible Omicron subvariants become the country’s dominant strains.

A new study found that the number of virus cases during the peak of the Omicron wave was likely to double what was reported.

Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia, told the news on Monday that the number of deaths from COVID-19 slowly increased as governments rolled back public health measures, likely to average 50 a day by the end of July.

“We’re seeing increasing numbers of cases, potentially more serious disease, rising death rates, and we’ve reduced even more public health measures,” said Professor Esterman.

Epidemiologist's grim forecast for Australia

“If you look at mid-April, say two months ago, we averaged about 30 deaths daily, right? Looking at it now, it’s more like 40 deaths a day. And in a month, I expect 50 deaths a day.”

As for why the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Australia is on the rise, Professor Esterman said it is “very hard to say why”. But he pointed to several possible factors.

He said the “Reff,” a key metric used to measure transmission, has risen in nearly all states.

Unlike the base reproduction number used at the start of the pandemic, the ‘Reff’ (effective transmission number) assumes that people have some immunity to the virus by being vaccinated or already infected.

Professor Esterman said the increased Reffs are due to highly transmissible new sub-variants of the virus sweeping across the country.

Until recently, the original Omicron strain, BA.2, was the dominant species.

But it is now being adopted by the BA.4 and BA.5 strains, which prove to be much more transmissible and potentially more deadly.

“We will see the cases increase, basically the production numbers. And this will impact hospitalizations because of the sheer numbers,” he said.

“BA.5 seems to” [be] infects the lungs, while the BA.2 primarily infects the upper respiratory tract. In other words, BA.5 can cause a much more serious disease.

“I would expect a higher rate of hospitalizations because the lungs, you know, once it gets into the lungs, it’s a more serious disease.”

Despite his grim view of deaths from COVID-19, Professor Esterman said it’s “not all doom and gloom.”

He said he is hopeful that a new vaccine being developed by Moderna will play a key role in changing things.

“It is a mixture of the old Wuhan strain and Omicron. And it is much more potent than the existing Moderna mRNA vaccine,” he said.

“It is still in phase three trials. They hope they can get it approved around August… If that comes out, it will definitely be worth it.”

Professor Esterman said there is also hope that Australia’s youngest will soon be able to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with children under five now eligible for their first dose in the US.

Antibodies tell everything

As Australia battles the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron strains, new data has emerged regarding the first BA.2 outbreak.

COVID infections skyrocketed in January thanks to the original Omicron variant, with states nationwide reporting 150,702 new cases as of January 13.

But a new national antibody study says these huge numbers could have been the tip of an iceberg, with the actual number of COVID infections arguably double what was initially reported.

The study, co-led by the UNSW’s Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society and the National Center for Immunization Research and Surveillance, analyzed 5,185 samples from blood donors ages 18 to 89 six weeks after the outbreak peak.

The researchers estimate that at least 17 percent of Australian adults will be infected with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, by the end of February 2022.

They estimate that the proportion of people infected was at least twice that indicated by cases reported to authorities in late February 2022.

Professor Esterman said that such large numbers could fly under the radar for several reasons.

“There are two problems. One is that people don’t care [getting tested]† The second is that rapid antigen testing is not as accurate,” he said.

“As of today, there were 22,527 cases diagnosed through a validation or PCR test, but it is the tip of the iceberg. It is probably several times that number of cases.”

The highest percentage of adults with antibodies to the coronavirus was in Queensland (26 percent), followed by Victoria (23 percent), New South Wales (21 percent), and Western Australia (0.5 percent).

Evidence of past infection was also highest among young blood donors (27 percent), consistent with the higher reported cases in this age group.

The researchers have now embarked on a second round of testing to test the prevalence of the Omicron subvariants.

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