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Expert: Omicron Finland's main coronavirus variant by Christmas

A boss at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district has called for third booster shots of Covid vaccines as well as the use of face masks.

Tutkija Tuomas Aivelo kuvattiin lumisena päivänä Pasilassa joulukuussa vuonna 2020.
Tuomas Aivelo Image: Silja Viitala / Yle
Yle News

According to Lasse Lehtonen, Director of Diagnostics at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS), there are many indications that the Omicron variant is becoming more common in the district.

Meanwhile, pathology researcher Tuomas Aivelo said he thinks omicron will be the main variant in Finland by Christmas.

Lehtonen tweeted on Monday that the proportion of S-gene negatives in last week’s positive tests was 7.0 percent, significantly higher than the previous week, when the percentage was only 0.6. The current main coronavirus, the delta variant, is predominantly S-gene positive, but in recent days there have also been an increase in S-gene negative results in samples testing positive for coronavirus infection, suggesting an upswing in Omicron.

"The development appears very similar to ones seen in Denmark and Norway. We may be a few days behind, but it is very likely that omicron will now spread to the [Finnish] population," Lehtonen told Yle.

The diagnostics director said it was still difficult to say what possible impacts the spread of omicron could have.

"We need boosters"

"The answer depends a lot on how much protection against the variant that vaccines provide. And secondly, [the severity] of symptoms that omicron causes," he said, adding that it is still unclear whether omicron is milder or similar to previous variants.

Lehtonen noted that current research indicates that the vaccines used in Finland do not provide adequate protection against the omicron variant without the use booster doses. Authorities in Finland will consider whether to speed up the pace of Covid-19 booster vaccinations.

"We need third [booster] vaccines. Many European countries have accelerated the schedule for rolling out booster vaccines due to concerns about the omicron variant," he said.

According to Lehtonen, there are also indications that omicron is more contagious than the widespread delta variant and that the use of face masks is becoming increasingly important.

Story continues after photo

Lasse Lehtonen on Helsingin Yliopiston terveysoikeuden professori ja  HUSin ylilääkäri.
Lasse Lehtonen Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

"Although you can go to various places with the Covid pass, people should use masks indoors, even a more effective FFP2-type mask," he said.

The need for further restrictions due to the epidemic will be known very soon, according to Lehtonen, who noted that if vaccines do not adequately protect people from a serious form of Covid, the country will be in a similar situation as it found itself at the beginning of the epidemic, with widespread restrictions.

"Omicron main variant by Christmas"

Researcher Aivelo said there are indications that omicron was spreading and predicted that it would be the most common variant by Christmastime.

"If the share of test results was seven percent last week, the readings are much higher now. In a week omicron will be the main variant in the HUS area and elsewhere," he said.

A similar development has already been seen in Norway, Denmark and the UK. According to Aivelo there is no reason to doubt that Finland would be an exception.

In Denmark, for example, omicron accounted for about 10 percent of new coronavirus infections a few days ago, while the proportion of cases caused by the variant is expected to break the 50 percent mark on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Exactly why omicron spreads so rapidly is not yet known, according to Aivelo, but it is known that the variant is often able to circumvent the protection provided by vaccines.

According to British research, two jabs of a Covid vaccine provide only about 20 percent protection against the omicron variant of the virus.

"The group vulnerable to omicron is therefore much larger than in the case of the delta variant," he explained, adding that it would no longer be possible to prevent the new variant from entering the country by, for example, tightening borders.

What is important, he said, is to limit the number of new cases it causes.

Denmark and Britain

"Denmark and Britain are trying to vaccinate a lot of people. It slows the spread of omicron and affects hospital workloads. It would be especially important to get vaccines to the unvaccinated," Aivelo said.

He said that due to the worsening situation in Denmark, restaurants, bars and nightclubs saw new restrictions and school holidays were extended in order to curb omicron's spread.

"Then, on the other hand, protections offered by the Covid pass no longer apply to omicron, as two vaccines do not seem to be effective [against it]," he said.

In terms of the emergency brake, Aivelo said there is no time to wait for implementing new restrictions, adding that the situation was already difficult in Finland.

4,300 cases over the weekend

On Monday, the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) reported that just over 4,300 new coronavirus cases had been diagnosed in Finland since Friday. The largest proportion of the country's cases (1,830) were recorded in the HUS district, followed by the regions of Northern Ostrobothnia (658) and Pirkanmaa (496).

The weekend's infection figure is relatively large, but Lehtonen said he prefers to keep his eye on the number of people with Covid who end up in the hospital.

As of Monday there were 296 people in hospitals being treated for Covid, 52 of whom were in intensive care. A further 21 people died from the disease over the weekend, according to the THL.

"If the vaccinations are OK, the illness caused by the coronavirus is usually quite mild. Vaccinations have changed the nature of the disease. It is hoped that this will be the case with the omicron variant. But we do not know [yet]," he said.

At the moment, the recent increased need for treatment of Covid at the district's hospitals appears to have levelled off.

"The need for medical care here at HUS has now slightly decreased," he said, adding that he doesn't foresee problems unless the anticipated spread of omicron significantly increases the pressure at hospitals.

Emergency brake unknowns

So far, Prime Minister Sanna Marin's (SDP) government has hesitated applying the so-called "emergency brake" and reintroducing epidemic restrictions.

But Lehtonen said that no one has exactly defined what pulling the brake would actually involve, adding that he would like to see the impact of the most recent restrictions have had at the local level before considering more widespread restrictions.

Lehtonen said that in his opinion, vaccinations are becoming more important, adding that if a third jab is needed to protect people against omicron, then the pace of vaccinations should be sped up.

"And the important thing, of course, is that those who have not had the first rounds of vaccinations should go get them," Lehtonen said.

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