Questions and Answers About New Variants of SARS-CoV-2

Why are some scientists concerned about the new Covid variant that has been found in France?

Whenever a new variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is identified, there are always concerns that it may prove to be more infectious than previous variants and spread quickly in the population. We saw this previously with the Alpha, Delta and Omicron variants, each of which spread rapidly in the UK, leading to waves of infection that put a lot of pressure on the NHS.

Should we be worried, and why?

The B.1.640.2 variant was first identified over a month ago and so far, it has not caused the massive global spike in Covid-19 cases we have seen with the Omicron variant. There is now very good identification of variants in many countries, so that the spread of a new variant can be monitored. If a variant is spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization will label it as a Variant of interest (VOI) or a Variant of Concern (VOC) depending on its severity. This has not happened yet with B.1.640.2. We should remain cautious, monitor the spread of any new variant, including B.1.640.2, but not get over-anxious.

Both Omicron and the new variant appear to have emerged in Africa, which has the lowest vaccination rate. Is that the reason?

Variants can emerge anywhere. The Alpha variant was first identified in the South-East of England and the Delta variant was first identified in India.

Will it become normal for variants to emerge and spread around the world like Omicron?

The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 will mutate constantly. Most mutations are of no great consequence but occasionally a mutation will appear that can cause a wave of infections – such as the Alpha, Delta and Omicron variants. We may well see other variants emerge and spread around the world in the future.

Are variants getting milder, or is it possible that another variant will be deadlier?

There is no guarantee that a variant will be milder. The Alpha and Delta variants were shown to be more likely to cause a serious illness that the original version of the Coronavirus. In the case of Omicron, the evidence thus far shows that it generally causes a milder illness than other variants. However, because of the very large number of Omicron cases, some people will still have a serious illness.

Could Omicron bring about the end of the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s unlikely that Omicron will bring an end to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, with updated vaccines that can target a new variant such as Omicron and antiviral drugs that can be used early in an illness, we can suppress the severity of disease caused by Covid-19 and allow people to live more normally.

If the world has to live with Covid, what might that look like?

This will vary from country to country. In the UK, high levels of vaccination – including with a modified booster vaccine later this year to target Omicron if the government approves this – combined with antiviral drugs will allow our society to function more normally. Countries with low vaccination rates and weak health services are still likely to face large waves of infection. It’s possible that we will need regular vaccinations – as for flu – to allow us to live with Covid-19. It is also always possible that a variant will emerge against which vaccines are less effective. But the good news is that vaccine manufacturers can modify their vaccines quickly if this happens.

Why is the booster important for Omicron?

The immunity provided by Covid-19 vaccines weakens after a few months. A booster vaccine substantially increase people’s protection from serious illness, including from Omicron. Ensuring that people are fully vaccinated with three doses of vaccine will reduce the number of people who are seriously from Covid-19, and keep down pressures on the NHS.

A version of this article was first published in the Daily Mirror.