Hungarian authorities in the dark about Omicron spread

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Hungarian authorities performed over 15,500 COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours, three times as many as a day earlier, and – low and behold – the number of new cases was up 120% d/d at 3,005. 115 people have died of coronavirus-related infection on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 39,009. The official government portal reported 68 people infected by the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. Considering the rampant spread of the highly contagious variant, this number means only one thing: local authorities have no clue about the actual number of Omicron infections. The National Public Health Centre (NNK) has managed to publish zero piece of relevant information about Omicron since it was first officially detected in the country. And there seems to be no intention whatsoever to come to terms with reality in this respect, either.
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How many Omicron cases does Hungary have? Er..., um... Not many?

Nearly every developed country has been reporting for weeks the share of SARS-CoV-2 sequences that are the Omicron variant, i.e. how it is replacing the Delta variant. Hungary provides no information of that kind at all.

Private laboratory Neumann Labs diagnosed the first people with infection by the Omicron variant in Hungary on 13 December. The NNK announced on 15 December that they found Omicron in 15 samples. On 23 December, the NNK reported another 46 Omicron cases (now we have 61 in total, and most of these were probably the confirmation of cases diagnosed by Neumann Labs). On 29 December, the NNK said 68 cases of Omicron have been detected in Hungary.

15, 61, 68… these numbers testify only one thing: the NNK has no clue how fast Omicron is spreading in Hungary.

Nearly 51,000 new COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in the country since 13 December. Are they saying that only 68 of these related to Omicron? Seriously? Have they looked at the statistics of countries that sequence samples to detect various variants, especially Omicron? Are they aware that Omicron cases double every two to three days?

These ridiculously low numbers only misguide people and trivialise and belittle the otherwise justified concerns about the presence of Omicron.

How could it be done?

  • Portugal regularly publishes the share of Omicron among new infections, and said its share was greater than 60% at Christmas;
  • Belgium diagnosed just as many people with Omicron as with Delta in the last few days;
  • In the UK, 90% of new cases are caused by Omicron.

Omicron is taking over:

Hungary is one of the countries that do not track variants, along with most of Africa, Asia’s less developed regions, and some countries in Eastern Europe.

Knowing about the presence / dominance of Omicron, the severity of the disease it causes and its hospitalisation rate is key, given its extremely fast transmission.

Neumann Labs has already found that 60% of the positive cases are caused by the Omicron variant. Uncertainties remain huge, though, and the share of Omicron among new cases could be anywhere between 40% and 80%.

This implies that of the 3,005 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in Hungary yesterday, 1,200 to 2,400 could have been caused by Omicron.

And let’s not forget that testing practices are extremely poor and unpredictable, i.e. there are much more infected people than what the official statistics show. The daily figures attest that one day authorities test people that show unequivocal signs of infection, while the other day they test mostly those that appear to be healthy. The daily percent positive numbers practically do not mean anything, we need to focus on 7-day or longer (21-day) averages at least.

Local epidemiologists, virologists, other experts are positive and international examples also make it certain that the Omicron variant is going to bring about the fifth wave in the coronavirus pandemic to Hungary. The start of the new wave will be superimposed on the end of the current one caused by the Delta variant therefore it will be trickier to pinpoint its actual kick-off. But it’s a matter of days, rather than weeks. The number of new cases, active cases, and the positivity rate will not matter as much as hospitalisations, given that the former three hinge on the extremely poor testing practices.

Let's see a couple of key charts about the current situation.

The positivity rate dropped to 19.32% from 30%, but, as mentioned above, the daily readings do not mean much. We need to focus on the averages of longer periods, especially on the 3-day / 21-day ratio of the positivity rate and its 7-day average.

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Here's how key stats in the last couple of months compare with the same period a year ago. The accumulated number of Covid deaths between 1 August and 28 December is 3.3% higher than in the same period of 2020.

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Vaccinations are progressing at a snail's pace. See more charts here.

  • about one third of the population have received three doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far;
  • about 3.5 million people have not received a single dose of any COVID-19 vaccine;
  • the effectiveness of vaccines wanes over time, which means that about three million Hungarians have diminished or no protection against coronavirus infection, even after two jabs;
  • the highly contagious Omicron variant is going to become the dominant strain, possibly within weeks, as Omicron cases double every two or three days. Even if this strain does not cause more severe disease than the Delta variant, its extremely rapid spread could strain the health care system to its limit in a very short time;
  • the Hungarian government is currently not considering lockdown measures, even though several countries in Western Europe have already introduced new restrictions.
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The following charts show changes in two of the key metrics in the pandemic, the number of Covid patients in hospital and on ventilator as well as their relevant ratios.

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On the charts below the 0% line is important. When the curves are under 0% there’s a decline, when they go over 0% it’s an increase. The changes show that the situation in terms of hospitalisations started to worsen after 20 August.

More importantly, when a value is north of 0% but the curve descends, it means an increase at a slowing rate, rather than a decrease. If the curve is above 0% and ascending, it is an increase at an accelerating rate. When we are under 0% and the curve goes lower, it translates into an accelerating decrease, and when it goes up it marks a decelerating decrease.

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Cover photo: Getty Images

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