In the last 3-4 weeks, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 increased by over 15 times in the country, driven largely by the Omicron variant. While the surge has been rapid and faster than during the second wave, the number of deaths is significantly lower. Here is a low down of the numbers so far.
Ever since the emergence of the Omicron variant at the end of November 2021, there is a sudden surge in the number of COVID-19 cases reported across the world. At the beginning of December 2021, around 6.87 lakhs COVID-19 cases were being reported in a day, which has now increased to more than 35 lakh daily cases across the world.
Though the number of cases in India began to increase slightly later (starting last week of December 2021) than most other countries, the number of new daily cases has already crossed 3 lakhs. India’s first Omicron case was detected on 01 December 2021, as per the update by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). Around 9.6 thousand Omicron cases were detected as of 20 January 2022. This is only among the cases where genome sequencing was done. Hence, it does not mean Omicron has only caused so many cases in India. In fact, all evidence suggests that the third wave is now being driven by the Omicron variant. On 20 January 2022, India reported 3.47 new daily cases. This increase in cases starting from the last week of December 2021 is considered the 3rd wave of COVID-19 spread in India.
In this story, we look at the trends so far in the third wave and how the various parameters compare with the devastating second wave. The data released by MoHFW daily on its website, till 20 January 2022 is considered for the story.
Daily new cases increased by more than 10 times since 01 January 2022
During most of December 2021, the number of reported daily new cases remained lower with an average of 7000 to 10000 cases per day in continuation of the declining trend post the second wave of COVID-19. The early signs of an increasing trend in the daily new cases were visible by the end of December 2021.
On 01 January 2022, the number of reported daily new cases in the country was 27.5 thousand. By 06 January 2022, this number crossed 1 lakh. On 19 January 2022, the number of reported daily new cases crossed 3 lakhs and 3.47 lakh cases were reported on 20 January 2022.
During the second wave (mid-February to May 2021), it took around 75-80 days to cross the 3 lakh cases mark. The second wave peaked at around 4.1 lakh cases by the second week of May 2021 whereas, in the current wave, more than 3 lakh cases in a day were reached in just about 20 days. The anticipated peak for the third wave in terms of the numbers and the duration is still unclear.
Our earlier comparison between the first and second waves showed that it took a shorter time for the second wave to reach its peak (around 3 months compared to around 5 months in the first wave). But the number of reported daily new cases was exponentially higher during the second wave.
Trends in the other countries also show that the later waves took a shorter time to reach their peak, but the numbers at the peak were much higher than the earlier waves. Based on these trends, it is possible that India would also hit the peak very soon before the reduction in cases begins.
Case Positivity Rate increased almost 16 times in the last 20 days
While increased testing could also be one of the reasons for the increase in cases, the numbers show that is not the primary reason. Case Positivity Rate (CPR), defined as the number of positive cases for every 100 tests is a more accurate indicator of the spread of the virus than the actual number of tests
We took the 7-day moving average of the total number of tests & the total number of positive cases to calculate the daily CPR. The 7-day moving average is a better indicator than absolute daily numbers since tests do not usually yield results on the same day, particularly during a wave when the load on the system is high.
At the beginning of December 2021, the number of daily tests was around 11 lakhs and ranged between 8-11 lakhs on average during the rest of the month. The number of daily tests increased post 05 January 2022 and on 20 January 2022, 19.35 lakh tests were conducted. In other words, the number of tests has at best doubled compared to the numbers in December 2021.
During most of December 2021, the daily CPR continued to be less than 1% i.e., all through December, only around one COVID-19 positive case was being detected out of more than 100 samples tested.
The trend began to shift by the end of December 2021 with CPR reaching 1.1%. The CPR continued to increase at a rapid rate in the ensuing days. By 10 January 2022, the average CPR was around 8.85% which reached 13.69% by 15 January 2022. By 20 January 2022, the CPR is 16.56% i.e., the CPR has increased around 16 times within a span of 20 days.
For comparison, the daily CPR was around 2% for the first 20 days of the second wave. It eventually was around 22% during the peak. As with the rapid increase in the number of cases, the CPR also indicates that the third wave is spreading faster than the second wave.
Significantly lower number of deaths compared to the second wave
One of the defining trends across the world of the recent COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant is the significantly lower number of deaths compared to the earlier waves.
Despite an increase in the number of COVID-19 positive cases over the past 10 days, the number of deaths has not increased unlike in the second wave. During the second wave, when the number of daily cases reached around 3 lakhs, the number of deaths was around 2 thousand per day. At its peak, the number of daily deaths during the second wave was more than 4 thousand per day.
In the current wave, although the number of daily cases has crossed 3 lakhs, the number of daily deaths is averaging around 400. While it can be argued that deaths get reported only after about two weeks of infection, the numbers even with that calculation are significantly lower. During the second wave, the number of daily deaths crossed 1600 fourteen days after the daily cases crossed a lakh. During the current wave, even though it’s been more than fourteen days since the number of cases crossed one lakh, the number of deaths has remained largely the same with a minor increase in some states. Based on the information provided by MoHFW, the 7-day average death figure was 435 on 20 January 2022.
Even this number of 400 a day is misleading since Kerala has been reconciling old deaths as a part of the appeal for compensation and including quite a few old deaths in its daily number.
For instance, on 20 January 2021, out of the 703 total deaths reported, 309 were older deaths which were included on that day based on the reconciliation process. All this means that the actual number of deaths could be still lower during the current wave.
An exponentially higher number of actual deaths in earlier waves based on Compensation claims
The Supreme Court has earlier approved Central Government’s decision to provide Rs. 50,000 ex-gratia compensation for COVID-19 deaths and directed the states to process the claims. The SC also directed states not to deny the claims based on mere technicalities. The process for providing compensation is ongoing in most states. If the numbers related to compensation claims being reported to the SC is any indicator, the number of actual deaths due to COVID-19 in the country could be exponentially higher during the previous waves.
As per the bulletin for 20 January 2022, the total number of deaths in Kerala was more than 51,000 out of which more than 20,000 were reconciled after appeals. In other words, about 40% of the deaths in Kerala were included after appeals. We earlier did a story on this highlighting the prospects of a higher number of deaths than those reported.
Recently, the Supreme Court took cognizance of the issues with appeals for compensation wherein the number of claims for compensation due to death by COVID-19 is higher than the numbers earlier reported by the states.
In the case of Andhra Pradesh, 36.2 thousand claims were received against 14.47 thousand deaths reported by the state. In Maharashtra, 2.17 lakh claims were received, while only 1.4 lakh deaths were officially reported. In Gujarat, 91.8 thousand claims were received but the state has reported only about 10 thousand deaths.
This huge mismatch between the number of claims & actual reported deaths is seen across most states and implies that the actual number of deaths could be significantly higher during the earlier waves than what has been reported by states so far.
While it is still early days to definitively comment on the trend due to the Omicron variant, all evidence so far indicates that this wave could be significantly less fatal while it might result in higher number of infections.
Featured Image: Numbers in India due to the Omicron Variant