Explainer: What do we know about the Omicron variant?

Explainer: What do we know about the Omicron variant?

The Omicron strain of coronavirus has been designated a ‘variant of concern’ (PA)

The new Omicron coronavirus variant has shown the “pandemic is far from over”, health officials have said.

Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant as it has around 30 different mutations – which is double the number present in the Delta variant.

How else is this new variant different from previous versions and how dangerous is it?

When did it first appear?

Scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded to the website so far.

Three samples are from Hong Kong, three are from Botswana and the rest are from South Africa.

On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium and on Saturday, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said two cases had been found in the UK.

What do we know about the cases in the UK?

There are two known cases of Omicron in the UK that have been traced back to southern Africa. 

Anyone in Britain who has travelled to the 10 countries placed on its red travel list – Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia – in the last 10 days must isolate and take a PCR test.

People who have recently travelled to the UK from South Africa are being contacted for testing (Michael Bedigan/PA)

How is Omicron different from the other variants?

Despite only being tracked for the past five days, the virus has already been found to have 30 different mutations.

The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.

It’s a highly complex mutation, there are also new ones that we have never seen before.

Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a jab against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines (Nick Potts/PA)

Will the vaccines protect people against Omicron?

It is too early to say. Work is underway to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will “almost certainly” make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.

Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.

Experts have said vaccines can be tweaked to tackle new variants as they emerge.

Mr Javid said: “We know this is new out there. We don’t know enough about it yet. But for what we do know, we know that the protections that we have, especially the vaccines, are hugely important.”

Has it been classed as a ‘variant of concern’?

Yes. On Friday evening, the World Health Organisation designated it a variant of concern and named it Omicron.

How worried should we be about this variant?

There are fears the virus transmits more easily and that it could be more deadly and evade vaccines. However, scientists have said it is too early to confirm if all of these fears are correct.

They are eager to acquire live virus cultures so it can be examined, but this takes time. It can take seven to 10 days at least to grow enough virus that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.

Officials will now also have to wait for data to come from South Africa. 

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