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Covid-19 and the Omicron variant – an update by Professor Adrian Newland

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Covid-19 and the Omicron variant – an update

The Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19 infection, was first detected in early November in South Africa and has now been identified world-wide.  Although the numbers detected in the UK remain small they are rising fast, with numbers doubling every two to three days, and it is predicted that it could become the dominant variant, taking over from Delta in the next few weeks.

Early evidence suggests that Omicron spreads more easily with more people becoming infected from contact, however, data from South Africa suggests that it causes a milder infection than past variants. Even though it spreads more quickly it has not been associated with any major increase in hospitalisations or in deaths.  We will see if this is confirmed as numbers increase over the next few weeks.

While double vaccinations provide some protection against infection this is probably half that seen with the currently dominant Delta variant.  However, evidence suggests that the third, booster dose brings this protection to over 90%.  In the UK almost 22 million people have had the booster dose, a third of the population, and the government has broadened eligibility to all those over 18 and shortened the interval between the second and third dose to only three months. 

Those who have been vaccinated may still contract the infection but this appears to be a much milder form of the disease and is rarely associated with admission to hospital.  It is best, however, to continue to take precautions against infection.  The government has brought in a number of public health measures, asking people to work from home where possible, wear masks in public places, including transport,  and be able to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test for entry into certain venues.  I would add that a more widespread use of masks would be desirable and where possible to maintain social distancing, although these have not been recommended by the government.  Both the lateral flow test (LFT) and the PCR tests will both identify the Omicron variant and in the run up to the Christmas period regular use of the LFT at home can add reassurance to continue meeting with friends and relatives.

It is worth pointing out that infection with the Delta variant remains a significant problem with high hospitalisation rates with severe disease in those with conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and who are obese.   This may also apply to those who are immune suppressed but ITP itself is not an independent risk.  Currently over 90% of those who require admission to Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are unvaccinated and nearly a half of those who require ventilation support are dying with an increasing number of under 40s are being affected.  This has put an enormous burden on the NHS and is preventable.  There are few medical reasons for not being vaccinated and we should encourage everyone to have this simple and safe procedures. The risks from the infection are far greater.

Professor Adrian Newland  12/12/2021