How worried should we be about the new Omicron variant? Leading virologist answers 5 key questions
The Omicron variant has around 30 different mutations and it is feared it could potentially evade current vaccines
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The UK government imposed ‘temporary and precautionary’ measures to tackle the variant earlier this week, including mandatory face masks in shops and on public transport, and self-isolation rules for all contacts of suspected Omicron cases.
It also features traits not previously seen in other mutations before, so experts are worried it could potentially evade vaccines.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.
“It’s a highly complex mutation, there’s also new ones that we have never seen before.”
Early scientific research suggests that for most people the variant only causes “mild illness”, but it has “substantial ability to reinfect people who have already had Covid”, according to a study from South Africa.
However, it is believed that booster vaccines will likely offer good protection against it, with the government now aiming to rollout top-up jabs to all over 18s by the end of January.
But what else is known about the new variant so far? Leading virologist Dr Phillip Gould, associate head of School Enterprise and Innovation at Coventry University, answers some of the key questions.
How worried should we be about the new Omicron variant?
Dr Gould says while we do need to be concerned about all new variants, the picture is not currently as worrying as when the Delta variant emerged due to the high level of vaccination.
He explained: “I think we were more worried about Omicron last week than we are now.
“It looks like it is pretty mild so far, but it is very early days yet.
“Delta came when we didn’t have this level of vaccination, so it is a massive difference compared to last year. If we had Delta now, we have got a much higher level of vaccination to tackle it.
“Protection is boosted as you get more and more people vaccinated, and also build up immunity with natural infections.
“What it looks like is pretty scary, but it is not currently appearing as bad. Although we are only two or three weeks in so far, so it is difficult to tell.”
Symptoms of the variant have been reported as mild so far - could this be a result of vaccinations?
Dr Gould said that while the variant has so far been known to cause ‘mild illness’, this is not necessarily down to high vaccination levels, as South Africa, where the variant originated, is a long way behind the UK in its jab rollout.
As such, the fact people are reporting mild symptoms is a good sign and vaccinations can only help to boost protection.
“Vaccinations in South Africa are very low so in a way that is positive,” Dr Gould said. “The vaccine is key to giving protection so we are at an advantage.
“Our lifestyles and climate and population are very different so it is hard to compare, and it is a waiting game right now.
“New variants will continue to emerge, new variants may cause milder disease and they will eventually evolve. What is a worry is the number of mutations Omicron has.
“So what we can do to try and avoid that is limit the number of people that become infected.
“We need to get vaccines across the world and support other nations, because viruses can occur anywhere in the world.”
What added protection do masks offer and how important are they in preventing the spread?
Dr Gould said he does not believe the UK is currently in a position where another lockdown is needed to control the spread of the Omicron variant, but stressed that small measures can make a big difference.
He explained: “Face masks are a really simple way to help limit the spread of infection.
“I was surprised when the government dropped that rule straight away earlier this year, but I do think it is definitely favourable to introduce face masks again on public transport.
“Anytime we are in an enclosed space there is a chance to spread the virus.
“I think the government needs to keep addressing the situation and look at what is happening.”
How important is the booster rollout in protecting against Omicron?
The UK government is expanding the booster vaccination rollout to allow all over 18s to get a third dose by the end of January, as well as offering a second dose to 12 to 15-year-olds, which is a move Dr Gould believes will be a big help.
He said: “Giving people boosters is certainly going to help.
“Why under 16s were only initially given one dose was strange and we should have done that earlier.
“But I think the government has done an amazing job in the logistics of getting everyone vaccinated. It is phenomenal.
“There are definitely things they could have done better but it is one of the best things they have done.
“The three month dose is going to be exactly the same as the first and second, so the impact of reducing the time period between doses should not be any different. If anying, the immunity will be quicker at activating, so I do not think that is an issue.
“The key is the time. Winter is a nice environment for respiratory viruses - that is when they spread. So giving people boosters now is a good thing.”
How likely is it that we will have a ‘normal’ Christmas this year?
While the government is still encouraging people to plan Christmas parties and celebrations as normal, there are concerns stricter rules could be put in place ahead of the big day, as was the case in 2020.
However, Dr Gould said while it is impossible to tell if ministers will go back on their word, the situation is not quite as bleak as last year.
He said: “It is impossible to tell at the moment, but what we have got this year is a huge percentage of the population vaccinated.
“We didn’t last time so we are in a much better position, so I don’t think you would need as strict restrictions.
“The NHS being overwhelmed is the key thing. If the NHS gets to breaking point you would, so it is really a case of ‘has the vaccine managed to stop that?’.
“We do not know the impact of this variant yet, but I think that whatever happens it will be different this time.
“I think people have just got to see what happens, do their own little bit to stop the spread and manage risks, and stay at home if you feel poorly.”
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