How worried should we be about the omicron variant?
When any new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 is identified, we don’t at first know how infectious it will be; whether it will cause a more serious illness than other variants; and how well vaccines will work against it. We therefore need to be cautious and take measures to control the spread of Omicron until this information becomes available. We shouldn’t however become unduly anxious.
I’ve heard that the variant causes more mild symptoms. Is that true and if so why are we worried?
Some early reports from South Africa suggest that Omicron may cause a milder illness than other variants. However, we will need data from many more people infected with the Omicron variant – particularly, older and clinically vulnerable people – before we can reach reliable conclusions about the severity of the illness it causes.
Why are they giving more booster jabs if the new variant can evade existing vaccines?
Two doses of current vaccines provide good protection – and three doses provides event better protection – against the other strains of coronavirus. At present, we have no evidence that the Omicron variant can evade existing vaccines. We need to continue with the booster programme as this has been very effective in keeping down the number of serious infections that can result in hospital admission or death.
Does the new variant transmit any differently?
We don’t yet have good data on whether Omicron can infect people more easily than other variants. This data will gradually emerge in the coming weeks.
Does it mean existing Covid treatments like the new antiviral treatments won’t work either?
It is possible that some of the newer antiviral treatments won’t work as well against Omicron as against other variants. However, this will need to be confirmed in research studies. It’s very likely however that antiviral treatments will still reduce the severity of illness caused by Omicron.
What don’t we know about omicron and when will we know?
We currently lack important information about Omicron – such as how infectious it is; whether it causes a more severe illness than other variants; how well vaccines protect against it; and whether antiviral drugs will be helpful in reducing the severity of illness it causes. Research is already underway to answer these questions.
How likely is it to affect Christmas and how?
We currently have a high Covid-19 infection rate in the UK. Fortunately, vaccines are keeping down the number of people with a more severe illness, which in turn is keeping the number of hospital admissions and deaths low. If we can get a high uptake of boosters in adults, we should be able to have a more normal Christmas this year. But everyone should continue with good infection control measures and not rely just on vaccination. People who are not vaccinated at all (around 11% of people aged 12 and over in the UK) should also come forwards for vaccination.
Will wearing masks really stop it?
Masks can reduce the spread of infection – particularly if a higher specification FFP2 mask is worn. When combined with other infection control measures such as vaccination and home working, masks can help reduce the spread of infection.
Will bringing forward boosters mean they’re not as efficient?
Brining forward the booster to three months instead of six months after people’s second vaccination won’t reduce its effectiveness in preventing serious illness. The booster dose substantially increases people’s immunity and this can help stop the Omicron variant evading our current vaccines.
What will happen in schools?
Many schools in England have had large Covid-19 outbreaks since September when the new school year started. It’s important that 12-15 year old children are vaccinated and also get a second vaccination once the government has approved this. People working in schools also need to be fully vaccinated with three doses (four doses for people with weak immune systems). Any child who is unwell with symptoms of a possible Covid-19 infection should get a PCR test and isolate until the result is back. Improving ventilation and air quality in schools is also essential to reduce the risk of infection.
Could there be more travel bans?
If the Omicron variant spreads further, then more countries may be placed on the government’s Red List. This can happen with very little notice, leaving travellers with the option of either cutting short their trip and returning quickly to the UK; or facing an expensive stay in a quarantine hotel. Everyone should consider this if they are planning an overseas trip in the next few weeks.
A version of this article was first published in the Daily Mirror.