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Omicron: Everything we know about the new Covid variant

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independent– The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the new B.1.1529 coronavirus variant omicron and designated it a variant of concern just weeks after it was first detected in southern Africa.

Scientists believe it could take months before we have a more complete understanding of the scale of the threat it poses.

What is known is that the variant, which descends from the B.1.1 lineage, is “unprecedented” and “very unusual” in the number of its mutations as it has 32 in its spike protein.

Where did omicron emerge?

The variant was first detected in Botswana on 11 November, where 19 new infections of the omicron variant have been found, as of Friday.

The country’s president Mokgweetsi Masisi said on Thursday that some of these first cases were in diplomats who had travelled to Botswana from Europe and elsewhere, without detailing which countries.

South Africa’s first case was spotted on 14 November, and the country reported the variant to the WHO on 24 November.

Professor Francois Balloux, the director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said that the variant’s mutations are in “an unusual constellation” that “accumulated apparently in a single burst”.

He suggested that the variant might have emerged from an immunocompromised person who harboured the virus for a long period of time, “possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient”.

How prevalent is omicron in the UK?

In the week after the first omicron cases were detected in England, the UK has discovered 150 infections in total.

Twenty-nine of the cases are in Scotland, where first minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Saturday that cases are no longer linked to a single event, but to several different sources including a Steps concert in Glasgow.

“This confirms our view that there is now community transmission of this variant within Scotland,” Ms Sturgeon said, warning that cases are expected to rise in the days ahead, “perhaps significantly”.

The first-known case in Wales was discovered on Friday, and Northern Ireland has said it expects to discover an instance of the variant in a matter of days.

How did omicron reach the UK?

According to health secretary Sajid Javid, the two cases initially found in England – in Brentwood, Essex, and in Nottingham – were “linked” and were traced to southern Africa.

While targeted sequence testing of other cases was launched in those areas, Mr Javid admitted that air passengers from South Africa who arrived in the UK last Friday were not tested, despite fears they could be carrying the omicron variant.

The travellers left airports in normal ways – including on public transport – and were only then asked to take Covid tests and to go into isolation if they tested positive, the health secretary said.

It means the UK does not know how many arrivals from South Africa were infected – after a staggering 10 per cent of people on one flight into the Netherlands tested positive for the omicron variant.

Where else are omicron cases being detected?

New infections linked to the omicron variant have been confirmed in at least 38 countries, including Belgium, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

How transmissible and dangerous is omicron?

Urging countries on Friday not to panic, but rather to prepare for the likely spread of omicron worldwide, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it would likely take another fortnight to establish how transmissible and dangerous the variant is.

While scientists believe it may be considerably more infectious than the delta variant, the UN health agency stressed that the data is still only preliminary.

The variant’s 32 mutations include E484A, K417N and N440K, which are associated with helping the virus to escape detection from antibodies.

Another mutation, N501Y, appears to increase the ability of the virus to gain entry to our cells, making it more transmissible.

In South Africa, where approximately 42 vaccine doses have been administered per 100 people, the WHO said there had been a 311 per cent surge in coronavirus cases in the last seven days of November, compared to the previous week.

South Africa is seeing more cases of re-infection than with previous variants, the health agency said, citing a microbiologist from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

But despite cases of the new variant emerging in dozens of countries around the world, not a single death has yet been attributed to it, the WHO said.

Of the 150 cases identified in the UK, none are reported to have been hospitalised, although the UK Health Security Agency noted that the infections are recent and there tends to be “a lag between onset of infection and hospitalisation and death”.

“We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” top WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan said, suggesting that omicron could become the globally dominant variant, in the same way that delta now accounts for 99 per cent of cases.

Is omicron resistant to vaccines?

The spike proteins coating the Covid virus allow it to attach and gain entry to human cells. Vaccines train the body to recognise these spikes and neutralise them.

The 32 mutations in the omicron variant’s spike protein will change the shape of this defence structure and make the spike protein less recognisable to antibodies.

Antibodies then won’t be as strong in attacking the virus, which would then be able to slip past immune defences and cause infection.

However, WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said on Friday that there was no evidence to back changing existing vaccines to tailor them to the new omicron variant, suggesting that the focus should be on distributing jabs more widely.

What are scientists saying about omicron?

Scientists have mixed opinions over whether or not we should be worried about the latest variant.

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, warned that the variant could be “of real concern” due to its 32 mutations.

He wrote on Twitter that the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile” which could mean that it is more contagious than any other variant so far.

 

Meanwhile, Prof Balloux of UCL said that at the moment there is “no reason to get overly concerned”, and also said that “it is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage.”

Professor Andrew Pollard, of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said it is “extremely unlikely” to trigger a new wave in the pandemic in the UK.

Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the Sage advisory group, said: “The headlines from some of my colleagues saying ‘this is horrendous’ I think are hugely overstating the situation.

“Immunity from the vaccination is still likely to protect you from severe disease,” he said.

“You might get a snuffle or a headache or a filthy cold but your chance of coming into hospital or intensive care or sadly dying are greatly diminished by the vaccine and still will be going into the future.”

Dr Meera Chand, the Covid-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency, said that the status of new Covid variants worldwide is constantly being monitored at random and that a small number of cases with “new sets of mutations” were “not unusual.”

She explained: “As it is in the nature of viruses to mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.”

What is the UK doing to curb the spread?

Boris Johnson announced on Saturday evening that people will be ordered to wear masks in shops and on public transport in England from 30 November in response to the omicron variant.

The prime minister also said that contacts of omicron cases must isolate for 10 days. All international arrivals must also take a day 2 PCR test and isolate until they receive a negative result.

Mr Johnson told the press conference that the rules will be reviewed before Christmas in three weeks’ time.

Meanwhile, southern African nations have also been added to the UK’s red list for international travel.

South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahla, said travel restrictions placed on his country were “uncalled for”.

He claimed they would not prevent the virus’ spread and suggested regular testing and mask-wearing to prevent surges of infections.

Which countries are closing their borders?

While the WHO has repeatedly warned against implementing blanket travel bans except in nations whose health systems are unable to withstand a surge in infections, Japan, Morocco, and Israel have decided to shut their borders to all overseas citizens.

A number of nations, including the UK, US and some in the European Union, have placed restrictions on travel from nations in southern Africa.

The UK has added Botswana, Angola, Eswatini, Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to its travel red list.

Australia announced a two-week delay to its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from 1 December.

In response to the various travel bans, the president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa urged nations to “urgently reverse” these decisions as they could spook economies.

The emergence of omicron is a wake-up call for the world to realise the impact of “vaccine inequality”, Mr Ramaphosa said, warning that further variants are inevitable until everyone is vaccinated.

Australia

NSW COVID-19 hospitalisations pass 1,000 as cases continue to balloon across Australia

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sbs– New South Wales has recorded another 18,278 COVID-19 cases and two deaths as the state’s outbreak continues to surge.

Sunday’s case numbers are slightly lower than Saturday’s 22,577.

The state recorded two deaths from the virus, while 1,066 people are hospitalised, up from 901 on Saturday. There are 83 in intensive care.

At the peak of the Delta outbreak, on 21 September, there were 1,266 people hospitalised with infections, and 244 in intensive care.

Testing numbers to 8pm on the first day of 2022 were down to 90,019, a drop from 119,278 on New Year’s Eve.

The high case numbers come as Premier Dominic Perrottet continues to focus on hospitalisation and intensive care numbers rather than the daily case total.

Despite comprising about six per cent of the population, unvaccinated people make up the majority of those in intensive care, Health Minister Brad Hazzard says.

To ensure hospital systems can cope, asymptomatic health workers who are in isolation due to being a close contact of a positive case will be permitted to leave isolation in “exceptional circumstances”, NSW Health announced on Friday night.

Victoria posts 7,172 cases, extreme heat closes testing sites

The first day of 2022 hasn’t been kind to 7,172 Victorians, the state’s latest residents to contract COVID-19.

A further three virus-related deaths have also been recorded for 1 January.

However the number of Victorian coronavirus patients in hospital care remains relatively stable at 472, up 19 on Saturday’s figure and 48 beyond the seven-day average.

Of them, 52 are classified as active ICU cases and 22 are in need of ventilation.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton’s daily update said on Sunday community sampling had revealed 76 per cent of all samples collected over the Christmas period were the Omicron variant. Further testing to confirm this is being undertaken over the next week.

In total, Victoria is managing 31,461 active COVID-19 cases.

Health authorities says virus testers managed to process 48,252 results in the 24 hours to Saturday evening.

The state is 93 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone aged 12 and over.

Some 7,442 infections were reported on Saturday, another pandemic record. There were 51 actively infectious patients in intensive care and 21 ventilated.

Extreme heat caused the closure of eight of the state’s testing sites on Saturday.

Queensland records 3,587 new cases

Queensland has added 3,587 infections to its COVID-19 caseload as a new indoor mask mandate comes into effect across the state.

Some 16,688 Queenslanders now have the virus. However, hospital numbers remain low with 112 patients in care, five of them in ICUs and none requiring ventilation.

Health authorities say testers processed almost 34,000 results in the 24 hours to 7pm on Saturday.

Queensland is 86.60 per cent fully vaccinated for everyone 16 and over.

Chief Health Officer John Gerrard says despite a jump of more than 1,300 cases in a day, he’s not surprised. In part, the increase is related to a change in reporting protocols which saw case figures taken from a 12-hour window on Friday.

“This number is probably a bit smaller than we had expected,” he said in Brisbane on Sunday of the latest figures.

“It probably (also) relates to testing over the holiday period and so it will not be a surprise at all that in the next couple of days we see a significant increase in cases as more samples are tested and more people come forward.”

Dr Gerrard said what experts were now seeing with the virus was that it was “a vastly different disease” to that which was spreading in the community last year and prior to vaccination.

“With a degree of contagiousness of this virus, we are going to be seeing very large numbers of cases, even though the severity is clearly going to be less,” he said.

“We are going to see very large numbers of cases and a small proportion of a very large number (who fall ill) is still a large number.”

Masks were declared compulsory in “virtually all indoor spaces” in Queensland from 1am on Sunday.

Previously masks were only required indoors at supermarkets, shops, on public transport and ride share as well as airports and planes, cinemas and theatres in Queensland.

They now need to be worn at workplaces unless unsafe to do so, pubs, clubs and cafes unless when seated, indoor stadiums and sport arenas, libraries, hair dressers and nail salons, and medical centre waiting areas.

Queenslanders were also urged to return to work-from-home arrangements where possible.

SA hospitalisations ‘very much within capacity’

South Australia, meanwhile, recorded 2,298 COVID-19 cases on New Years Day from 21,140 tests.

The newest caseload is up from 2,108, while hospitalisations have also risen by 11.

There are currently 82 people in hospital, Premier Steven Marshall said on Sunday, a number which he said was “still very much within our current capacity”.

Seven people are in ICU.

“We see a lot of admissions but also a lot of people are leaving hospital on a daily basis after their conditions have stabilised,” Mr Marshall told reporters on Sunday.

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US follows UK’s lead and shortens isolation for healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19

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independent– Healthcare workers who test positive for Covid-19 and are asymptomatic only need to isolate for seven days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said.

The CDC reduced the recommended isolation time from 10 days in part due to concerns that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could cause even greater staffing shortages at hospitals.

In new guidance released on Thursday, the CDC said infected healthcare workers could return to work after a week as long as they were asymptomatic and produced a negative test.

The US recorded 261,339 new cases on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Earlier this week, the UK Health Security Agency announced that essential workers would be allowed to return after a seven-day isolation period amid a worsening staffing crisis in hospitals.

In a statement, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was updating guidelines in response to an “anticipated surge” in patients due to the Omicron variant.

“Our priority, remains prevention—and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”

Dr Walensky added that health care workers who were fully vaccinated, including with a booster shot, did not need to isolate after a high-risk exposure.

On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that essential workers who tested positive could return to their jobs after five days if they were fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and had not had a fever within the past 72 hours.

“This is not Delta, or the first variant,” Ms Hochul said during a live address.

“This is Omicron, and thus far it has demonstrated it’s not as severe in its impact, and therefore we want to make sure that our critical workforce, who we’ve relied on from the beginning, can get back to work.”

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Covid booster jab triggers immune response in days, not weeks, say scientists

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independent– Those who receive a Covid booster jab can expect to mount an immune response in a matter of days – not weeks, scientists say.

The boosters have been shown to restore the body’s immunological defences against Omicron, which appears capable of infecting those who are double-jabbed.

While it takes up to two weeks to prime the immune system against Covid after a first dose, the effects of a booster jab start to be felt within two to three days, experts believe.

“The immunity generated after a booster jab will rise much quicker than the first immune response,” said Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University.

That’s because crucial memory cells activated after the first dose will still be present in the body, Prof McLean explained, and therefore “do not require the two-week activation and instruction phase they initially go through”.

These memory cells – T and B – are responsible for hunting down infected cells and producing antibodies that stop the virus from gaining entry in the first place.

Their continuing presence means the immune system is on high alert and ready to spring back into action at the earliest sight of the virus, or anything that mimics it.

“That can then translate into boosted antibody levels and other increases in active T cells within days of the booster,” said Prof McLean. “It is likely that maximal immune activity is reached seven days after the booster.”

Professor Charles Bangham, an immunologist and co-director of the institute of infection at Imperial College London, said that in a secondary or subsequent immune response, T cells and antibodies should start to be detectable within “two to three days” of a booster.

The boosters appear to be 70 per cent effective against omicron infection – and are thought to offer even higher protection from hospitalisation and death – but scientists are concerned that the UK rollout won’t be able to keep up with the spread of the variant.

Doubling at a rate of every two days, Omicron has fuelled a sudden lift in national cases. On Thursday, 88,376 new Covid cases were reported, setting a new pandemic record for the second day running.

However, infections are thought to be running at far higher levels. The UK Health Security Agency said it expects there to be more than one million infections a day by the end of the month.

The government, meanwhile, has set the ambitious target of rolling out one million boosters a day to counter Omicron, and intends to have offered all eligible adults one by the close of the year. Some 745,183 third doses were given on Thursday, bringing the national total to 25.4 million.

Recent research from Israel suggests that rates of infection, severe disease and death from Delta were reduced after three to seven days post-boost – but reduced more after 12 days post-boost – when using the Pfizer vaccine for all three jabs.

The UK’s Cov-Boost study, which investigated the benefits of a booster jab among people who had received doses of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine, also pointed to an increased immune response by day seven.

“This ‘secondary immune response’ is more rapid than observed following the ‘priming’ course of vaccination, when the body takes 14 days or longer to ‘prime’ the antibody-producing B cells to produce antibody against the virus,” said Penny Ward, a visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London.

“However when virus antigens [an immune-triggering structure] are ‘re-encountered’ – either by a boosting shot of vaccine or by exposure to infection – these cells react very rapidly to produce antibody more quickly.”

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