All we know about the Omicron Covid strain – and six unanswered questions



Brits hoping for a Covid-free Christmas are facing the threat of stricter measures as the Omicron variant continues to surge with cases doubling every two-and-a-half days.

Yesterday, officials announced a total of 45,145 variant cases had been detected in Britain after reporting another 8,044 daily infections.

There were also 129 confirmed hospitalisations and another 14 deaths caused by strain in the 24 hours before 6pm on Monday.

But as cases of the mutation surge, they raise the total overall number of Covid cases to catastrophic levels.

London has carved itself a place as the Omicron hotspot – with more than 140,000 new coronavirus infections were reported in the week ending last Friday, December 19.

That figure was three times higher than the 42,455 confirmed cases at the start of the month.

Experts warn real figures are likely to be considerably higher. Health Secretary Sajid Javid previously pegged the number at up to 200,000 each day.

As cases rise, concerns grow about whether the health service will be equipped to cope with a third wave.

Experts warn the NHS faces collapse even if Omicron is “milder” than the Delta or Wuhan strains
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AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists have warned that if stricter containment measures aren’t implemented quickly, the strain could quickly run rampant and collapse the NHS.

However, the Omicron variant has only been detected in the UK for less than a month and there are still many uncertainties.

Initial research and studies from its country of origin, South Africa, suggest it’s a “milder” strain compared to Delta or the original Wuhan strain, but scientists have warned Brits not to think it is harmless.

Here is what we know about the Omicron variant so far:

Timeline of infection

Omicron was first detected in South Africa on November 24 – but the first positive sample dates back to the ninth of the same month.

The variant spread from Africa and has now been found in several countries across the world, including the UK.

The first UK infections were found in two people in England with travel links to South Africa on November 27.

London is the Omicron hotspot
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ZOE COVID Study UK)

The World Health Organisation said cases in affected countries are doubling every 1.5 to three days, which is “considerably faster than Delta”.

Scientists estimate that Omicron accounts for around a third of total Covid cases.

Yesterday, 76,065 new Covid cases were reported, and just over 8,000 of them were Omicron – representing a substantial chunk that continues rising as the mutation moves towards its peak.

Omicron is thought to account for a third of overall Covid cases
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Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)

On December 15, data from the Office for National Statistics announced Covid cases were up by 41.2 per cent on the previous week.

Experts believe the real figure of daily Omicron infections is far higher, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid previously estimating it at 200,000 per day.

Rules and Restrictions

As the strain surges, harsher containment measures may be just days away and fall over the Christmas period.

The UK Government’s current weapon against the virus is Boris Johnson’s “Plan B”, which has been slammed by lawmakers and prompted a rebellion from the Tory benches.

In a direct response to the Omicron threat, the PM made face masks compulsory once again in most public indoor venues.

The NHS Covid Pass was also rolled out in many bars and nightclubs, forcing people to present a negative test or full vaccination to gain entry.

People have been seen forming snaking queues outside of vaccination centres to receive their booster
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When the rules were implemented on December 8, the Government stressed that testing and vaccinations remain the best line of defence.

The PM also urged Brits to work from home where possible.

But as the Omicron crisis worsens, lawmakers are considering harsher restrictions.

The WHO advised people to “change or delay” their plans this festive season and Mr Johnson is reportedly considering a ban on all indoor socialising from December 28.

Insiders say the Government is currently weighing up a return to the Step 2 restrictions implemented earlier in the pandemic, which would see hospitality staff once again serving customers outside.

Downing Street has refused to rule out the possibility of more restrictions amid fears the NHS could be overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

Where did Omicron start?

Omicron – which is officially named Covid variant B.1.1.529 – was first identified in Botswana on November 11 and was linked to an infection surge in Gauteng, South Africa.

It was first detected by Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association.

She told The Andrew Marr Show she first encountered the variant in a man in his early 30s who presented with tiredness and a mild headache, but none of the usual coronavirus symptoms.

This chart shows the number of people calculated to have COVID symptoms on each day since the 11th June 2020
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ZOE COVID Study UK)

Following its discovery, the WHO urged countries to enhance surveillance to stop it from spreading, while scientists raced to analyse the variant’s large number of mutations – a cause for serious concern.

The virus was soon detected in other nations, many of which implemented travel bans for southern African countries.

Since being discovered, scientists have been sharing their findings on how dangerous they think the virus could be, in contrast to the Delta and regular Covid strains.

By the time Omicron had spread to 40 countries, WHO officials said early evidence indicates the strain is “mild” and that there’s no evidence of vaccines being less effective.

This came after Botswana, where the virus originated, was seeing 80 percent of cases being asymptomatic.

But experts have been divided as to the risks the virus poses in comparison to other strains.

How dangerous is it?

The Omicron variant has been widely reported as having milder symptoms and is thought to damage the lungs less than other variants.

A lot of complications and severe illnesses related to the virus come with infection deep in the lungs and it’s thought that Omicron is far less effective at reaching this area.

Similar to the Wuhan and Delta strains, how badly you’re affected by Covid largely depends on other health conditions.

People who are overweight, or with respiratory illnesses or type 2 diabetes, are more likely to become gravely ill.

Research points to Omicron being a “milder” strain
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According to virology professor, Will Irving, it’s up to a “combination of how rapidly your immune system responds and the size of the infecting dose”.

But there are additional dangers that come with how fast this virus spreads.

NHS bosses in London were warned last week of a looming third wave – driven by a fatal cocktail of Omicron and Delta.

The health service predicts the wave will peak around January 13 and quickly fill all available Covid surge beds.

It’s been predicted that the number of daily hospitalisations will be in their thousands and that NHS could “collapse” if staff absences ripped through the workforce – with up to 50,000 medics expected to be hit with the virus.

Despite experts concluding the new strain is “milder”, the WHO’s chief scientist yesterday said it is still far too early to become complacent.

Soumya Swaminathan told journalists in Geneva that it could still produce enough seriously ill people to “overburden” healthcare systems.

“It is probably unwise to sit back and think this is a mild variant, it’s not going to cause severe disease, because I think with the numbers going up all health systems are going to be under strain,” she said.

How effective is vaccination?

And it’s also unwise to think the vaccine protects from Omicron.

Two doses of the vaccine provide significantly less protection for the mutation against the Delta strain.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) analysed data earlier this month, which showed 24 weeks after a second jab your barrier against Omicron is between 10 and 40 per cent, depending on the jab.

As an example, AstraZeneca provides 40 per cent protection against a Delta symptomatic infection, but under 10 percent for Omicron.

It’s thought that two jabs only provide a limited barrier against Omicron
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Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)

A separate study by Columbia University researchers showed Omicron is “markedly resistant” to all of the vaccines”.

UKHSA chief medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins said: “I think what we’re seeing is that if you’ve had two doses more than three months ago, then it’s not going to prevent you from getting symptomatic disease.”

What we don’t know about Omicron

Though scientists are gleaning more and more about the nature of Omicron every day, there are still many unknown factors.

Most initial indicators suggest the strain is milder, but it’s still too early to tell.

Experts are studying the virus’ spread in its country of origin, in South Africa, where hospitals have reported 29 percent fewer patients being admitted to hospital.

But straight after that promising data was shared, Prof Whitty urged “serious caution” against comparing South African figures to the UK.

Initial research into the strain is not conclusive, and further studies are needed
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AFP via Getty Images)

The chief medical officer said those figures were to be expected as the country went into the wave with higher levels of immunity than when Delta struck in the summer.

And because the UK wasn’t hit as badly during Delta, it would be unwise to compare the two.

While lab results suggest the strain is more resistant to vaccines, further research is needed to see how it plays out in the real world.

Early data also suggests that the booster shop is key to heightening immunity, which also needs further research to be confirmed true.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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