What We Know About the Omicron Covid-19 Variant So Far
Concerns are mounting over the latest variant of coronavirus after cases have emerged in England and Scotland.
The new variant labelled Omicron has double the number of mutations of the delta variant and is thought to be highly contagious.
Omicron was first identified in a patient in Botswana in early November but the variant has now begun to spread globally due to international travel.
As of Monday, November 29, there have been three cases in England and six cases in Scotland.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “At this stage we know that not all of them have any recent travel history to or known links with others who have travelled to the countries in southern Africa where the variant was originally detected.
“This suggests that there might already be some community transmission of this variant in Scotland.”
Omicron is the thirteenth SARS-CoV-2 variant to receive a formal WHO title and has been labelled as a variant of “concern” due to fears it may be less responsive to vaccines.
Precautions are being taken in the UK and other countries whilst scientists assess what the new variant’s impact could be.
What are the new Covid-19 measures in England?
- All contacts of suspected Omicron cases will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.
- Face coverings are being reintroduced from Tuesday on public transport and in shops and will be compulsory.
- Anyone arriving in the UK will have to take a PCR test within 48 hours of entering the country and will need to self-isolate until they have a negative result. This comes into effect at 4:00am on Tuesday.
- Secondary school pupils in England are being “strongly advised” to wear face coverings in communal areas.
The government will review the updated Covid rules in three weeks time, as has been done throughout the pandemic.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged for increased compliance with measures to stop the spread of the virus in Scotland and encouraged frequent testing.
Why is Omicron a cause for concern?
The mutations identified in the Omicron variation are all in regions that have previously been linked to increased transmissibility and immune escape.
This means the variant could potentially avoid detection from antibodies, rendering the Covid-19 vaccine less effective.
There have been 32 mutations detected in the new variant in the location where antibodies from vaccines are targeted, which is concerning to virologists.
Omicron has also been linked to a spike in COVID-19 cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province, where the positivity rate increased from 1% to 30% within two weeks.
It is difficult at this early stage for scientists to determine the impact of the variant whilst it is still being examined.
Doctors in South Africa have so far noted the variant is only causing mild disease.
But these infections have been detected mostly in younger people who typically would only experience mild COVID-19 symptoms regardless.
How is Omicron different from past variants?
Omicron has been identified much earlier than previous variations of coronavirus due to careful surveillance in South Africa.
There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms for Omicron are different to other variants, and the severity is being monitored.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that Omicron could be anything from catastrophic to inconsequential.
Where are the Omicron cases in the UK?
The first two cases in the UK were announced on Saturday and found in Nottingham and Essex.
A third Omicron case was detected on Sunday in a person with travel links to southern Africa who visited Westminster in London before leaving the country.
In Scotland there are four cases in Lanarkshire and two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area.
There have been no cases identified in Wales or Northern Ireland, although the North’s Minister for Health warned that the variant might already be present in Northern Ireland.
The Scottish and Welsh governments are urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to toughen UK travel restrictions further in light of the emergence of Omicron.
Scotland has expanded its red travel list in line with the Westminster government to include 10 African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.
Omicron cases have also been reported in Germany, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel, the Netherlands, France and Canada.