Everything you need to know about the new Covid variant and what is being done to slow its transmissionOmicron symptoms: How the new Covid variant differs from previous strains and what protection vaccines offer
The omicron variant, which has double the number of mutations of the delta variant, is thought to be highly contagious and has led to cases being found worldwide.
The UK confirmed the presence of omicron, which was first detected in South Africa, on November 27.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Sunday after the UK Covid alert was raised to Level 4. He issued a stark warning about a “tidal wave” of omicron cases and said the situation could deteriorate rapidly.
Below, we have answered the key questions about the variant, the vaccines, and what the future may hold.
What are the symptoms of the omicron variant?
Fatigue and high pulse are among “unusual” symptoms spotted by Dr Angelique Coetzee, who had patients with muscle aches, “scratchy throat” and dry cough. A few had a high temperature.
She first saw the variant in a man in his early thirties with tiredness and a mild headache, but none of the usual symptoms such as a loss of taste or smell, a high temperature and continuous cough.
How is this different to previous variants?
Those who contract the dominant delta variant frequently report headaches, a sore throat and a runny nose – symptoms which are also classic features of a common cold. According to the Zoe tracker app, run by King’s College London scientists, the most common symptom is a moderate to severe “pulsing” headache lasting three to five days, which painkillers don’t help. Even at this early stage, omicron appears to be with milder headaches.Advertisement
There is also emerging evidence that would indicate omicron spreads more easily, which could result in a faster and higher peak than previous variants, even if immunity from severe disease continues.
Hospitals in South Africa are continuing to report “far milder” symptoms from omicron compared to previous variants. The Chief Executive Officer of Netcare, the largest private health care provider in South Africa, Dr Richard Friedland told The Telegraph that early trends during the country’s fourth wave indicated a “far less severe form” of Covid.
During the first three waves, 100 per cent of the 55,000 Covid-19 patients hospitalised in Netcare facilities needed oxygen. So far, during the new wave, only 10 per cent of 337 hospitalised patients need oxygen.
He said that 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in the company’s 49 different hospitals were considered “incidental”, meaning that patients had come in for other problems and tested positive for Covid-19.
“Having personally seen many of our patients across our Gauteng hospitals, their symptoms are far milder than anything we experienced during the first three waves,” Dr Friedland said. “While we fully recognise that it is still early days, if this trend continues, it would appear that with a few exceptions of those requiring tertiary care, the fourth wave can be adequately treated at a primary care level,” he added.
It was stressed, however, that these were only preliminary results and that the situation could change.
This sentiment was echoed by Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response, during a press conference on December 8, as she cautioned that reports of mild disease are anecdotal and it is “too early” to draw firm conclusions.
In an address by Boris Johnson on December 12, the Prime Minister warned of a “tidal wave” of omicron and said: “Do not make the mistake of thinking omicron can’t hurt you, can’t make you and your loved ones seriously ill.”
What happens if I have omicron?
All contacts of new variant cases were originally told to self-isolate, but on December 8, it was announced that daily testing would be introduced instead for those who come into contact with infected people. All Covid contacts now have to take daily lateral flow tests, not just those who come into contact with omicron.
The UK Health Security Agency is continuing to carry out targeted testing at locations where confirmed omicron cases were likely to have been infectious.
What is the risk of reinfection with omicron?
A large-scale South African preliminary study, published on the Medrxiv website, surveyed nearly three million people infected with Covid. It found that the risk of reinfection from the omicron variant is three times higher than for the delta and beta strains of the virus.
The authors concluded: “Evidence suggests that the omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.”
Why is it called omicron?
Officials at the World Health Organisation skipped two letters of the Greek alphabet when naming the latest Covid variant in order to avoid “stigmatising” China, and perhaps its premier Xi Jinping.
A WHO source confirmed the letters Nu and Xi had been deliberately avoided. Nu had been skipped to avoid confusion with the word “new” and Xi had been ducked to “avoid stigmatising the region”, they said.
Since May, new variants of Sars-COV-2 have been given sequential names from the Greek alphabet under a naming convention devised by an expert committee at the WHO. The system was chosen to prevent variants becoming known by the names of the places where they were first detected, which can be stigmatising and discriminatory.
Do vaccines protect against the variant?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously warned that it is not yet known if vaccines will help fight against the omicron variant. He said on November 27: “We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection. And if you are boosted your response is likely to be stronger.”
On December 12, he reiterated this fact and said: “No-one should be in any doubt: there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming, and I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need. But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose – a booster dose – we can all bring our level of protection back up.”
This has been echoed by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, former chairman of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19, told the Telegraph it would take “weeks and weeks” to see if Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will defend against the new B.1.1.529 variant.
Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of the vaccine maker Moderna, has himself predicted that there will be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of vaccines against the omicron variant, due to the high number of mutations in the spike protein, which the virus uses to latch on to human cells – but this is being disputed.
Do booster jabs protect against the variant?
Data from a government-funded Covboost trial, published in The Lancet, has found that booster jabs produce long-lasting T-cells that are likely to work against all current and future coronavirus variants, including omicron.
The scientist behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, Dr Ugur Sahin, has also said that he remains optimistic that the jab will provide protection against severe disease caused by omicron. He told the Wall Street Journal: “Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot.”
Pfizer itself has said in a statement that three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine are effective against the omicron variant, adding that boosted individuals had the same level of protection as people received with two doses against the original form of the coronavirus.
Lab studies using blood samples of triple and double-jabbed individuals were infected with omicron and analysis revealed antibodies effectively neutralise the variant of concern
The UK Government had previously announced its aim to invite all adults to book a booster before the end of January, with the wait between the second and third doses being halved from six months to three.
Earlier this month, the UK bought enough shots for two more per person, with 54 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and 60 million from Moderna, to “future proof” the vaccination programme.
And, on December 12, Mr Johnson announced the launch of the Omicron Emergency Boost, “a national mission unlike anything we have done before in the vaccination programme”.
He confirmed that all adults should get the third dose by the new year, bringing the previous target of boosting all adults by the end of January forward by an entire month.
As of Monday, Dec. 13, 23,561,729 (over 40 per cent) of the UK population have received their booster jab.
But new research from Germany suggests that the latest variant can evade antibodies that are produced by booster jabs to a significant extent.
The Director of the Institute of Medical Virology at University Hospital Frankfurt, Sandra Ciesek, stated on December 7 that early laboratory results showed boosters may not be a panacea against omicron.
Blood taken from subjects who had received three jabs performed better against omicron than those which had not been boosted, but was nevertheless much reduced compared to delta.
“BioNtech three months after booster only 25 per cent neutralising versus 95 per cent with delta,” she wrote in a tweet. “Up to 37 times the reduction in delta vs. omicron.”
What is being done about the new Covid variant?
Flanked by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, and the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Prime Minister held an unexpected press conference on November 27 and announced a series of tighter restrictions that came into force from 4am on November 30.
Those restrictions were as follows:
- Anyone arriving in the UK will be asked to take a PCR test for Covid-19 by the second day and must self-isolate until they provide a negative test.
- All contacts of people who do test positive with the suspected variant will have to self-isolate for 10 days. The Government confirmed that this applies to children.
- The rules on face coverings are changing. They will become compulsory on public transport and in shops from next week, but not including hospitality. Teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being “strongly advised” to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.
Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola also joined South Africa and five other neighbouring nations on England’s red list.
However, in a press briefing on December 8, the Prime Minister went further and implemented stricter measures throughout England.
The main changes in rules were:
- Return to work from home guidance from Monday, December 13
- Facemasks to be worn in most public indoor venues from Friday, December 10
- Mandatory use of the NHS Covid pass to enter nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather including unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people, and any venue with more than 10,000 people from next week
He also announced that daily testing would be introduced instead of isolation for those who come into contact with infected people.
What has WHO said about the omicron variant?
The World Health Organization has said that omicron has been detected worldwide, stating that the highly mutated variant could have a “major impact” on the trajectory of the pandemic.
Dr Tedros, Head of WHO, told a recent press briefing: “Certain features of omicron including its global spread and large number of mutations suggest it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic. Exactly what that impact will be is still difficult to know, but we are now starting to see a consistent picture of rapid increase in transmission,” he said.
He urged governments to urgently take action to curb Covid transmission in the face of omicron and the still dominant delta strain.
“Even though we still need answers to some crucial questions, we are not defenceless against omicron or delta,” he said. “The steps countries take today and in the coming days and weeks will determine how Omicron unfolds. If countries wait until their hospitals start to fill up, it’s too late. Don’t wait. Act now.
“We’re running out of ways to say this but we will keep saying it. All of us. Every government and every individual must use all the tools we have right now.”
Dr Tedos also warned that travel bans are unlikely to be effective to halt omicron’s spread now the new variant has been widely identified.
It comes as Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead of the Covid response, suggested that the emergence of an omicron-type variant was “entirely predictable” – particularly in light of vast imbalances in the global vaccine rollout.
She said reducing transmission and increasing vaccinations is key to ending the pandemic.
Dr van Kerkhove told a briefing: “This is one of the scenarios that is completely predictable. The virus has been evolving since the beginning. We cannot only focus on vaccination coverage.
“You hear us say it a lot: it is not in vaccines only. We need a comprehensive response to tackle this problem. And global problems need global solutions,” she added. “We can only fight this virus in some countries, while others are fighting with their hands tied behind their back.”
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.