Struggling to keep up with the latest Covid-19 news? Following Boris Johnson’s announcement about no further restrictions before 2022, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the coronavirus variant that is spreading very quickly. What is the Omicron variant? How much research is there on it? And are the current vaccines effective at stopping it?
Everything feels rather chaotic at the moment, doesn’t it? Over a month since the Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, its presence is certainly being felt here in the UK.
Right now, it feels like everyone knows at least one person who is either waiting for a PCR result, is on their way to get tested or has self-imposed isolation to avoid the virus during the Christmas period.
And while the government has confirmed that no new restrictions will be introduced before New Year’s Eve, it can be hard to know what to do or how to behave – especially when the Covid-19 messaging from the government over the past couple of years has been so mixed. However, as the strain continues to be researched by scientists, we’re finding out more and more about how we can effectively protect ourselves.
So, to make things a little less stressful, we’ve put together this guide to everything you actually need to know in order to navigate the next couple of weeks. You’ve got this.
What is Omicron?
The Omicron variant is a mutated version of the original Covid-19 virus, which was first identified in South Africa on 24 November. By 26 November, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had designated the variant – also known as B.1.1.529 – as a “variant of concern,” due to its highly mutated nature.
The first known cases of Omicron in the UK were reported on 27 November, when two people with links to travel in southern Africa tested positive in England. At the end of November, there were 22 cases in England and Scotland – cases have continued to rise since then.
The Omicron variant is the fifth variant to be designated a “variant of concern” by the WHO – previous variants of concern include Alpha, which was colloquially known as the ‘Kent variant’, and Delta, which remains the most dominant variant in the UK for the time being.
Health minister Gillian Keegan confirmed to Sky News on Wednesday that 129 people are currently confirmed to be in hospital with the new strain, and 14 people are now known to have died from Omicron.
Why is it called Omicron?
In May this year, the WHO announced that it would use the letters of the Greek alphabet to identify key Covid-19 variants in order to make them “simple” and “easy to say”.
The naming system – which was chosen after consultation with experts – is designed to replace the variant’s scientific names in the media and public discussion.
In a statement, the WHO explained: “While they have advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminatory.”
Omicron was named after the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet, even though it’s not the 15th variant to be identified.
This is for a number of reasons – not only have there been other, less concerning variants that have received Greek names (such as Lambda and Mu) but the WHO decided to skip some of the letters, such as Nu and Xi, primarily to avoid confusion with the English word ‘new’ and the common surname Xi.
Is Omicron more deadly than previous variants?
Scientists across the world have been working hard to understand the severity of the threat Omicron might present. Initial reports from South Africa suggested that while the Omicron variant seems to spread faster than previous variants, it may cause less serious illness.
Now, initial UK data on the Omicron variant has showed that it appears to be milder, with a 20%-25% reduced chance of a hospital visit and at least a 40% lower risk of being admitted overnight.
Despite still being highly transmissible, daily Covid cases topped 100,000 for the first time on Wednesday, leading experts to warn that the NHS is still at risk of being overwhelmed by the continued spread.
The full report by Imperial College found that the risk of any attendance at hospital was between 20% to 25% lower with Omicron versus the Delta variant, and around 40%-45% lower when the visit resulted in admission for at least one night. For the small percentage of people who had neither been previously infected with Covid nor vaccinated, the risk of hospitalisation was about 11% lower for Omicron versus Delta.
The report stressed that more data is needed, particularly in older age groups, and that it is still too early to assess the risk of admission to intensive care and death. However, researchers say greater reductions in risk are possible.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
The NHS website still asks anyone who is experiencing any of the three original Covid-19 symptoms – a high temperature, new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – to get a PCR test, and the WHO says there is currently no information to suggest that the symptoms associated with Omicron are any different.
However, Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first alerted authorities to the presence of the Omicron variant, says the patients she’s seen are experiencing different symptoms to those traditionally associated with Covid-19.
She told the AFP that the patients she had seen were experiencing symptoms including fatigue, a scratchy throat, mild headache and body aches.
At a briefing held by South Africa’s Department of Health, GP Unben Pillay revealed that patients are also experiencing night sweats – aka, when you sweat so much your night clothes and bedding are soaking wet – as well as dry coughs, fever, fatigue and “a lot of body pains”.
How many cases of Omicron are there in the UK?
Cases have been rising rapidly throughout the month. The UK Health and Security Agency said on Tuesday (21 December) that it had identified 15,363 new cases, taking the UK’s official Omicron total to over 60,508. However, the true figure is thought to be multiples higher – currently around the 90,000 mark.
On Wednesday 22 December, daily Covid-19 cases topped 100,000 for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the number of people in hospital with the new strain is considerably lower than previous strains.
Are vaccines effective against Omicron?
The short answer? Kind of. Research is still ongoing, but lab studies have indicated that the neutralising antibodies you get after two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine – aka, those which stop the virus from invading your cells in the first place – are far less effective against Omicron than they are against the Delta variant.
This doesn’t mean that the vaccine won’t provide some protection – early studies also suggest that they still greatly reduce the risk of someone becoming seriously ill and needing hospitalisation – but that booster vaccines will be necessary in order to provide a good amount of protection.
Indeed, data released 10 December indicated that protection against Omicron was boosted up to over 70% after a third dose of the vaccine.
“These early estimates should be treated with caution but they indicate that a few months after the second jab, there is a greater risk of catching the Omicron variant compared to Delta strain,” Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, told Reuters.
“The data suggest this risk is significantly reduced following a booster vaccine, so I urge everyone to take up their booster when eligible.”
On 22 December, the government announced that over 30 million people in the UK had received their booster jab.