A new variant of COVID-19 has been named by health officials – here’s what we know about the Omicron variant so far…
What is the variant?
The Omicron variant, also labelled B.1.1.529, was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on 24 November. The first known confirmed infection of the variant was collected on 9 November, it is understood.
A new variation of the COVID-19 virus, the variant is said by the World Health Organization (WHO) to have a “large number of mutations, some of which are concerning”. The variant has been named as a variant of concern, which is the WHO’s top category of variants which it is worried about it.
Variants are part of the way in which viruses evolve. The more a virus spreads, the more it can change through ‘mutations’. Many mutations have only a limited impact, though some can lead to new variants that can see the virus develop differences in order to help it survive.
The variant has been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, while reports have suggested that cases are suspected in Germany and the Czech Republic. Two cases of the variant have been confirmed in the UK on Saturday.
What actions have been taken so far?
Countries have been racing to contain the variant in recent days, concerned about the impact the variant could have if it spreads.
The UK announced new travel restrictions on Thursday evening, with flights being temporarily banned from noon on Friday between the UK and six African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini. Temporarily, travellers from these countries can not enter the UK unless they are UK or Irish nationals or UK residents – in which case they must quarantine as part of the red list requirements.
European countries agreed on Friday to restrict Southern Africa travel, while other countries including the United States have also announced travel bans.
Some have questioned the travel bans, including South Africa’s Health Minister, though others have claimed they will allow scientists time to find out more about the variant. Some scientists have also pointed to low vaccination rates in South Africa, compared to some Western nations, raising concerns that this could help cases to rise.
What impact could the variant have in the UK?
The first two confirmed cases of the variant in the UK were declared on Saturday.
What impact the variant could have is debated, and it is important to point out that there is limited real-world data available at present to help scientists and other experts to understand the potential impacts of the variant.
The mutations of the virus have raised cause for concern, though how bad the variant may prove to be is yet to be known. It is thought that more will be learned about the variant in the coming weeks.
Will vaccines still work against the virus?
New variants of COVID-19 have previously raised concerns due to the potential for them to make vaccination less effective in tackling the virus, and also due to concerns around potential increased transmissibility. Health officials are reported to have said that vaccines would “almost certainly” be less effective against the new Omicron variant – though it is too early to say the extent of this.
Manufacturers of vaccines, including Pfizer, have said they expect to be able to “develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine” against the new virus variant in “approximately 100 days”, if required and approved by regulators. Other vaccine manufacturers have also started work on creating a vaccine based on the known facts about the new variant.
The UK Government’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said that the UK remains in a “strong position” due to its high vaccination rates and has urged people to continue stepping forward for a booster jab when eligible.