What we know about the Omicron variant of Covid-19 so far

What we know about the Omicron variant of Covid-19 so far

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus has mutated many times. Not all mutations hit the news, but when the World Health Organisation (WH

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Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus has mutated many times. Not all mutations hit the news, but when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares a variant as a variant of concern, it is assigned a letter of the Greek alphabet to differentiate it from other forms. Until recently, most current UK cases were of the Delta variant. However, on the 24th November 2021, the WHO announced that a new variant – Omicron – had been reported in South Africa. Although travel between the UK and South Africa was quickly restricted, cases had already spread and it looks set to become the dominant strain of the virus this month.

Is this a more dangerous strain?

Omicron has over 50 mutations, including 30 in the spike proteins. This can make it easier to evade our immune systems, allowing it to infect both the vaccinated and those who have developed antibodies after contracting the virus.

Much is still being learnt about Omicron, but at present, there are no signs that it is more deadly and may even be less severe. However, most of the data on Omicron is coming from South Africa which has a younger average population than the UK, so it is too soon to be certain on this.

Although it may not be more deadly, it does appear to be more transmissible – two or three times more infectious than the already highly transmissible Delta variant, so more people are likely to contract it. With greater numbers ill, this in itself may cause a higher level of hospitalisations and fatalities with the threat of overwhelming the NHS.

Symptoms

Everyone should continue to monitor themselves for the common Covid-19 symptoms of fever, dry continuous sough and loss of taste or smell. However, Omicron has some additional symptoms to look out for, including:

  • Sore throat
  • Aching muscles, particularly around the back
  • Stomach upset
  • Loose stools
  • Stuffy nose

Get tested

Many of these symptoms are identical to the common cold, so a test may be the only way to distinguish between them, making it important for anyone experiencing symptoms to get tested. There is also likely to be some asymptomatic spreading. To counter that, face coverings are again mandatory in many indoor venues and on public transport, and people are urged to work from home if possible. Regular testing, even without symptoms, is also recommended, particularly in workplaces where it is not possible to work from home. Matrix Diagnostics is one company that can supply a rapid Covid-19 test in batches of 20 for workplaces to set up a testing routine with results in 15 minutes.

Do vaccines work?

There have been mixed messages as to the effectiveness of vaccines on the new variant, with evidence suggesting that even after two doses, protection is lower than previous variants. However, a booster, or third dose, appears to raise the effectiveness to as much as 75-80% and particularly reduces the chance of severe illness. With the booster program now open to everyone over 18, it is recommended that everyone receives their booster at the earliest opportunity.

Being fully vaccinated, supplying a negative Covid test or proof of recent recovery from Covid are also currently necessary for entry into some large venues and sporting events.