Omicron variant symptoms: signs of new Covid strain, how many cases in UK, and do vaccines work against it?

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Tougher Covid rules are being put in place to help minimise the risk of infections from the new Omicron variant, which appears to have a slightly different set of symptoms

Covid restrictions are being tightened in the UK amid concerns over the new highly transmissible Omicron variant.

A third case of the ‘variant of concern’ was detected by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Sunday (28 November), while six new cases have been confirmed in Scotland today, bringing the UK total to nine.

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Face masks are to be made mandatory once again in shops and on public transport in England from 4am on Tuesday (30 November), while close contacts of positive cases are being ordered to isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.

Isolation rules will also return for international arrivals until confirmation of a negative PCR test for Covid-19.

The crackdown on rules comes amid fears the strain, first detected in South Africa, could spread more rapidly than other variants and may partially evade existing vaccines.

Here’s everything that is known about the variant, its symptoms and its effect on jabs.

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Omicron’s spike protein with new mutations seen in red, blue, gold and black (Image: Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow)Omicron’s spike protein with new mutations seen in red, blue, gold and black (Image: Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow)
Omicron’s spike protein with new mutations seen in red, blue, gold and black (Image: Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow) | Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Symptoms of the Omicron variant appear to be mild, according to a South African doctor, and can be treated at home.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, who first spotted the new variant said that while patients have so far had “extremely mild symptoms”, more time is needed to fully understand the effect it could have on vulnerable people.

She explained that patients had started to experience symptoms that differed slightly to those linked to the Delta variant, and began with a male patient suffering from extreme tiredness, body aches and a headache on 18 November.

While fatigue appears to be the main symptom among cases detected so far, patients have also reported having a scratchy throat, body aches and pains, a headache, runny nose and sneezing.

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Unlike other variants, patients are yet to report losing their sense of taste and smell, and Dr Coetzee said there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new strain.

(Graphic: Mark Hall / NationalWorld)(Graphic: Mark Hall / NationalWorld)
(Graphic: Mark Hall / NationalWorld) | (Graphic: Mark Hall / NationalWorld)

She told the BBC: “It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33 ... and he said to me that he’s just extremely tired for the past two days and he’s got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache.

“Not really a sore throat, more a scratchy type of description and no cough, and no loss of smell or taste.”

She said more patients came in on the same day with the same kind of symptoms and all tested positive.

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This prompted her to alert South Africa’s vaccine advisory committee, of which she is a member.

The variant has predominantly affected people aged 40 and younger in South Africa and almost half of the patients with Omicron symptoms treated by Dr Coetzee were unvaccinated.

She added: “What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing — is extremely mild, for us that’s mild cases.

“We haven’t admitted anyone [to hospital]. I spoke to other colleagues of mine - the same picture.”

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There is little data on how the variant has affected people outside of South Africa, so it is still unclear if symptoms will be similar among those infected in other parts of the world.

How many cases are in the UK?

A total of 59 cases of the Omicron variant have now been detected in the UK, including some linked to a concert by pop group Steps.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the concert at Glasgow’s Hydro on 22 November was among the sources of a rising case numbers in the country, confirming that community transmission is now evident within Scotland.

Cases have also been confirmed in England and in Wales.

Do vaccines work against Omicron?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the variant appears to spread “very rapidly” and can transmit between people who are fully vaccinated.

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Fears have also been raised that it may partially reduce the protection offered by existing vaccines, although more research is needed.

Preliminary evidence from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that the variant carries a higher risk of reinfection, but it is not yet clear how transmissible it is or if it can evade vaccine protection.

Speaking after the confirmation of six Omicron cases in Scotland, Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “There is still much to learn about the Omicron variant.

“Questions remain about its severity, transmissibility and response to treatments or vaccines and scientists are working at pace to provide additional information.

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“Until more is known we must be cautious and do everything we can to minimise the risk of spreading infection.”

UK scientists are expected to announce an expansion of the Covid booster vaccine programme to all adults and may reduce the interval between the second and third doses.

A decision is due to be confirmed on Monday (29 November) afternoon.

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