Chris Whitty’s busy today so I’m afraid you’ve got me standing in, another completely unqualified journalist with no training in medicine or epidemiology. So with my one-eyed-man-ness out in the open, here’s what you could’ve found out from all the other articles written by equally clueless writers.

There’s a new covid variant, Omicron, and everyone’s losing their collective sh*t about it. Here are the reasons for you to panic, and the ones for you to take a deep breath and optimistically wait for more data…

Bet you're sick of this stock image by now...

Wait, isn’t covid over?

Everything was going our way. Life was back to normal, we’re in pubs and restaurants and each others’ houses, masks are increasingly a rarity, even on the tube where it’s mandated. Meanwhile we were supercharging our vaccine and booster campaigns to the point where deaths and hospitalisations from covid were tumbling.

Everything was going our way. Life was back to normal...

Then on Tuesday doctors in South Africa discovered a new variant of the virus that sent politicians and clinicians into a complete tizzy. Welcome Omicron…

Why omicron?

The new variant sounds like the sort of shadowy organisation that James Bond goes up against. While Delta made you think of the airline or the Australian pop star, ¬†there’s something ominous about Omicron. But actually it’s just another Greek letter, and until now the letters have been progressing in order (alpha, beta and so on).

There could be some potential headaches when they progressed up to the Greek letter Xi...

Clearly someone at the World Health Organisation (WHO) has a grasp of PR felt that there could be some potential headaches when they progressed up to the Greek letter Xi, given the deadly variant would share a name with the leader of global superpower China… So they’ve skipped to the letter which comes after Xi… Omicron.

Okay, thanks for the etymology. Tell me about the virus

It’s reportedly got some bad signs. There are 43 mutations in Omicron, which compares to 18 in Delta, the emergence of which stalled Britain and the world’s efforts to avoid lockdowns last Christmas and spring.

Eek, that’s bad right?

The mutations occur on something called the ‘protein spike’, which is the infecty bit. This is the part of the virus that the vaccines specifically act on. So in theory the more mutations here the more likely it is that the virus will evade the protections provided by the vaccines.

So we’re screwed?

No, we aren’t necessarily back to square one at all. Firstly, though it was heavily mutated Delta was still effectively combatted by the vaccines. There is no reason to assume that the vaccine won’t still provide protections against Omicron in the same way.

Second, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that vaccines may still be effective.

Go on…

It’s seriously early days. The variant was identified on Tuesday, reported to the WHO on Wednesday and we’re less than a week in. But the evidence in South Africa is that the variant is especially infecting young people. Now with the proviso that South Africa has a much younger population, it’s also true that it’s predominantly older people who are vaccinated.

That does suggest that the vaccines offer some sort of protection against the variant...

If it’s true that this isn’t particularly affecting older age groups then that does suggest that the vaccines offer some sort of protection against the variant. If

Anything else you can see through those rose-tinted glasses?

Yes, one other thing. The other piece of completely anecdotal evidence from South Africa is that it’s not that bad. Given it’s mainly seen in young people, who generally respond better to covid, this should be taken with a large pinch of salt. But there’s a chance that the variant has swapped greater infectiousness for better symptoms. Mutating its way into little more than a cold.

This, of course, is likely wishful thinking, but still, k'know, possible....

This, of course, is likely wishful thinking, but still, k’know, possible. We will have to wait and see.

How long?

It can take up to three weeks for scientists to really understand what they’re seeing here. It’s worth pointing out that South Africa has very advanced genome sequencing expertise (a sad but useful result of being at the forefront of TB and AIDS epidemics in the past). Britain is also a world leader and it’s likely that the scientific community are working together and at pace to figure out what’s going on.

There were two linked cases reported in England this weekend...

But meanwhile Omicron is already here. There were two linked cases reported in England this weekend and six more in Scotland this morning. It’s likely that real-world data discovered in the next few days will give an indication as to what’s coming.

So how are the government dealing with this?

Unlike with Delta, where global governments were found to be asleep at the wheel, there has been a rapid reaction. Boris took to the airwaves on Saturday and immediately put South Africa and neighbouring nations on the travel red list. He also has mandated that, from tomorrow, everyone will have to wear masks on public transport and in the shops.

Further, anyone coming into contact with someone with Omicron will have to isolate, regardless of vaccine status and anyone travelling to the UK will have to take a PCR test and isolate until they have the results.

School children at Year 7 and above will also be back in masks and the booster jab campaign is being ramped up further.

However, the government has stopped short of a complete ‘Plan B’ approach, which would involve working from home and vaccine passports, and mask wearing is not necessary in hospitality settings.

Why bother with vaccines if we think they might not work?

They should offer some protection. The point of vaccines is to stop you going to hospital and/or dying and even if it’s less effective then it’s very likely that the vaccine will offer some protection.

The booster campaign has already been paying dividends as we’ve seen increasing infections from the Delta variant while the numbers that would force a lockdown (ie threats to the NHS of people dying or being taken to hospital) are simultaneously falling fast. Britain’s booster campaign, topping up immunity, is one of the best in the world and may offer us the best protection against the variant.

What if I’m not vaccinated?

Don’t take the risk. The infectiousness of Delta was of a magnitude increased from Original Gansta Covid, and this is expected to be many times more infectious (reports from South Africa are of a ‘vertical line’ spread). Almost everyone knows someone with covid right now, and that’s with Delta. It’s unlikely you’ll escape it, so best to be prepared.

And what if I’ve had Delta, will I get it again now?

Reinfection from Covid was something that we saw from early on. But if you’re double or treble vaxxed and you’ve had delta then you should be the most protected group. While the vaccines are built around the original Wuhan strain of the virus, infection from Delta will cover more of the mutations that make up Omicron. In theory you are the best protected in the world from serious downsides from the new variant.

Okay, so what now?

We wait. And hope and pray that as they pick apart all the data from the new variant the picture looks better than we fear. But the best thing you can possibly do is get your booster jab. The government is speeding up the roll-out so book yours in the moment you have the opportunity.

And will we have Christmas?

Mmaybe we can all put the same thing on our letters to Father Christmas this year…


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