How widespread is more contagious variant of Covid-19 in Denmark?

Denmark currently has tight travel restrictions in place against the United Kingdom due to the spread of a new, more contagious variant of Covid-19 believed to have first appeared in the south-east of England.

How widespread is more contagious variant of Covid-19 in Denmark?
A closed school in Copenhagen on January 4th 2021. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The variant has spread significantly in Denmark in recent weeks, according to a January 2nd status report by the Scandinavian country’s infectious disease agency, State Serum Institute (SSI).

That is despite restrictions imposing a Danish entry ban on all UK residents and negative Covid-19 test requirements on Danish citizens and residents travelling from the UK.

READ ALSO: Residents of Denmark returning from UK must take Covid-19 test within 24 hours of travel

86 cases of the variant, which has the technical name cluster B.1.1.7, have been found by SSI, which genetically sequences a large number of samples from positive Covid-19 test swabs to identify the variant of the virus present.

Because SSI sequenced around 11 percent of all positive samples in that period, the actual number of people infected with the variant is likely to be around 9 times higher, the agency said.

The 86 cases comprise 0.8 percent of around 10,300 samples sequenced in the last 6 weeks of 2020, according to SSI’s report.

But that percentage is increasing week-by-week, with the variant appearing in 2.3 percent sequenced samples in the last week of December.

The new variant has been estimated by specialists in the UK to be up to 50-74 percent more contagious than other known forms, SSI notes. Based on what scientists know so far, however, the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness than other kinds of coronavirus.

Considerable regional variation was found in the SSI sequencing. In the last full week of 2020 (beginning December 21st), the variant comprised 7.1 percent of sequenced samples in North Jutland; 5.2 percent in Zealand; 2.3 percent in Central Jutland; and 1 percent and under in both Greater Copenhagen and Southern Denmark.

“It looks like there is actual societal spread (of the variant) in Denmark rather than isolated travel-related cases,” Roskilde University professor and researcher in virus infections and epidemics Thea Kølsen Fischer told newspaper Dagbladet Information, commenting on the data in the SSI report.

Although the variant does not appear to cause more serious illness than other kinds of coronavirus, a faster-spreading form is concerning news for Denmark’s health system, according to another expert, Eskild Petersen, an associate professor at Aarhus University’s Faculty of Health.

“Although it’s not immediately worse for patients, this is extremely concerning. With an infection rate 50 percent higher, we will get far more infections with the new form, more hospitalisations and more deaths in a relatively short space of time,” Petersen told Information.

Several other European countries have also detected cluster B.1.1.7, but this has primarily been in people who have travelled from the UK, according to SSI. This probably reflects a focus on testing and detection of the variant in this group, the agency writes. Denmark, unlike other countries, has been able to test more widely through its sequencing activities, thereby detecting some level of societal transmission.

“The spread of a more infectious virus variant can lead to a steeper epidemic curve with a higher peak. The new virus will probably continue to spread and that will mean that we must strengthen our transmission prevention strategies or maintain them for a longer period of time to keep the epidemic under control,” SSI head of department and senior medical consultant Tyra Grove Krause said in a statement.

“We are one of the countries that sequences the most samples. We can therefore follow developments closely,” Krause also said.

“We are also working on developing a new PCR (coronavirus) test that can specifically detect one of the mutations this virus has, so we can follow the development amongst all positive tests in close to real time,” she added.

“In addition, our expert group in mathematical modelling is working hard to calculate how this variant can spread in relation to the restrictions we have in society, and in relation to how many people we can vaccinate,” the SSI consultant said.

READ ALSO: Denmark has already given 13,331 vaccine jabs

In comments published by the agency, Krause also said that although the current national lockdown will reduce virus spread, the new variant will eventually “outcompete the other viruses we have in circulation, because it is more contagious”.

“That can mean that infections quickly flare up when you lift restrictions,” she added.

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IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?

The number of new Covid-19 infections fell on Saturday for the second day in a row, following a three-day plateau at the start of last week. Has the omicron wave peaked?

IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?
Graffiti in the Copenhagen hippy enclave of Christiania complaining of Omicron's impact on Christmas. Photo: Philip Davali/Scanpix

How many cases, hospitalisations and deaths are there in Denmark? 

Denmark registered 12,588 new cases in the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, down from the 18,261 registered on in the day leading up to Friday at 2pm, which was itself a decline from the record 28,283 cases recorded on Wednesday. 

The cases were identified by a total of 174,517 PCR tests, bringing the positive percentage to 7.21 percent, down from the sky high rates of close to 12 percent seen in the first few days of January. 

The number of cases over the past seven days is lower than the week before in almost every municipality in Denmark, with only Vallensbæk, Aarhus, Holseterbro, Skanderborg, Hjørring, Vordingborg,  Ringkøbing, Kolding, Assens, Horsens, Thisted, and Langeland reporting rises. 

Hospitalisations have also started to fall, with some 730 patients being treated for Covid-10 on Saturday, down from 755 on Friday. On Tuesday, 794 were being treated for Covid-19 in Danish hospitals, the highest number since the peak of the 2020-21 winter wave.

The only marker which has not yet started to fall is the number of deaths, which tends to trail infections and hospitalisations. 

In the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, Denmark registered 28 deaths with Covid-19, the highest daily number recorded since 20 January 2021, when 29 people died with Covid-19 (although Denmark’s deadliest day was the 19 January 2021, when 39 people died). 

How does Denmark compare to other countries in Europe? 

Over the last seven days, Denmark has had the highest Covid-19 case rate of any country in Europe bar Ireland. The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since the start of December, apart from a brief fall over Christmas. 

So does this mean the omicron wave has peaked? 

Maybe, although experts are not sure. 

“Of course, you can hope for that, but I’m not sure that is the case,” said Christian Wejse, head of the Department for Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital. “I think it is too early to conclude that the epidemic has peaked.”

He said that patients with the Omicron variant were being discharged more rapidly on average than had been the case with those who had the more dangerous Delta variant. 

“Many admissions are relatively short-lived, thankfully. This is because many do not become that il, and are largely hospitalized because they are suffering with something else. And if they are stable and do not need oxygen, then they are quickly discharged again.” 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said during a visit to an event held by the Social Liberal party that the latest numbers made her even more optimistic about the coming month. 

“We have lower infection numbers and the number of hospitalisations is also plateauing,” she said. “I think we’re going to get through this winter pretty well, even if it will be a difficult time for a lot of people, and we are beginning to see the spring ahead of us, so I’m actually very optimistic.” 

She said that she had been encouraged by the fact that Omicron was a “visibly less dangerous variant if it is not allowed to explode.”