Danish data offers hope the COVID-19 pandemic is ending, but experts warn it’s not quite over yet

Since the start of the pandemic, sceptics of the severity of COVID-19 have likened it to the flu.

Two years in, with the milder Omicron variant now dominant, most of the developed world vaccinated, and much of it boosted, that assertion may bear some truth.

That is the view of JP Morgan economist David Mackie, who has been doing statistical analysis of the pandemic since soon after it began.

“Our analysis of the Danish data suggests that the properties of the now dominant BA.2 sub-lineage of Omicron (high transmissibility but low virulence), high vaccination and booster rates and the use of anti-viral therapeutics have together pushed the case fatality rate (CFR) of COVID-19 to below the CFR of influenza,” he noted.

He believes Denmark, which last week removed most restrictions, could offer an insight into what the COVID endemic that is likely to follow the pandemic might look like.

This is possible, Mr Mackie argued, because the CFR, or death rate, in Denmark from those confirmed to have the BA.2 strain of Omicron, now dominant there, is less than 0.05 per cent — or one-in-2,000.

Mr Mackie said this is similar to the global death rate from influenza, which is estimated to kill between 0.05-0.1 per cent of those infected.

However, he added that it is likely the fatality rate from Omicron BA.2 is lower still, because people who die within 30 days of a positive test are recorded as a COVID-19 death.

“A University of Copenhagen study calculated that up to 40 per cent of the deaths recorded in the latest week in Denmark were people who died with COVID-19 rather than people who died because of COVID-19,” he noted.

“If we make this adjustment, the CFR for BA.2 falls from 0.045 per cent to 0.027 per cent.”

At this level, while Mr Mackie believes COVID-19 will still result in millions of extra hospitalisations around the world each year than before it existed, he thinks governments are more likely to invest in their healthcare systems to respond than impose restrictions on individual behaviour.

‘We may get unlucky’

However, three of Australia’s leading epidemiologists have varying degrees of doubt about the bank economist’s analysis.

Overall, Professor Tony Blakely from the University of Melbourne believes the analysis of the fatality rates from Omicron BA.2 relative to influenza is “most reasonable”.

His main doubt rests with the idea that the pandemic might soon be over once and for all.

He said this conclusion rests on a “big assumption” that any further variants are “Omicron-like with decreasing virulence.”

“There will be new variants,” he warned.

“It is, however, random whether it will be less or more virulent. There is no selection pressure based on this virulence.”