UK officials have been warned to brace for a significant increase in coronavirus infections by the country's main advisory panel, according to minutes released on Friday even as scientists said the jury was still out on the overall impact of the Omicron variant.
Medical experts at the sharp end of the Omicron outbreak have said it is not clear the emergence of the variant will be a step change in the pandemic. Prof Salim Abdool Karim, of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus, said it was unclear if Omicron sufferers would need hospital treatment, but the feedback suggested “there're really no red flags” or that it was “dramatically different” to the Delta variant.
The Omicron Covid-19 variant could prove to be a “good thing” that might lead to the disease becoming less deadly, according to one leading virologist.
While far more infectious than the Delta variant, Omicron could prove to be less deadly than Delta, as early anecdotal evidence suggests, then it might give people only a “mild cold” rather than cause serious illness or death, Prof Jennifer Rohn said.
But she pointed out that in a worst-case scenario if the strain overtook Delta and was deadlier as well as vaccine resistant, it would cause many more deaths. More will become clear as research results come in.
Early evidence from South Africa has shown that while infection rates have surged, fatalities have fallen significantly. There has been a 388 per cent infection increase in the past week, rising to 11,000 on Thursday, but the deaths in the same period decreased by 33 per cent to 140 in the past week.
The UK's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting in late November called for preparations for a future outbreak. "It is important to be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now, ahead of data being available," the Sage advisory notes said. Covid-19 infections recorded a weekly rise in the UK on Friday with 50,584 further cases, an increase of 1 per cent on the level seven days earlier.
“Omicron is probably more infectious but the question is, is it is it actually more dangerous?” said Prof Rohn, a leading virologist at University College London. “If it's not more dangerous, if it only gives you a mild cold, it could be a good thing. It may spread around the world and replace Delta, but with a less virulent strain. That would almost be a good thing.”
While deaths from Omicron in South Africa initially appear low, the country's population has an average age of 27 compared with a European Union average age of 44, with potentially more vulnerable people.
The Delta variant is ravaging Europe, killing more than 4,000 people a day with the continent braced for half a million deaths this winter.
It also is becoming clear that previous Covid infection does not provide protection against Omicron, although vaccines are likely to protect against serious illness, according to the World Health Organisation.
Scientists in South Africa have reported that Omicron is three times more likely to cause reinfection than previous variants such as Beta and Delta, meaning it can evade immunity from prior infection.
There is also further anecdotal data from Israel that suggests boosted individuals are fighting off Omicron, said Prof Rohn, who specialises in cell biology. “The more infectious variant will take over so it could supplant Delta and maybe that won't have so many repercussions. Or it could be deadlier. It’s either great news, or worrying news, or about the same.”
While millions of mutations were cropping up all the time, the virus was “working in a very restricted space” in which it can unlock a human cell for infection.
“It's trying to escape immunity, but it still has to perform and function,” Prof Rohn said. “With 90 per cent of people in the UK having antibodies against original Covid the more people that get boosted, even if it isn’t 100 per cent effective, the greater chance they have of fighting off the virus.”
But she said that it was still “theoretically possible” there was a “master virus lurking that we don't know about”, although the chances of that “are getting less and less”.
Fears over Omicron and Delta infections were reflected by Prof Peter Openshaw, from the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, who cautioned against Christmas parties because “the chances of getting infected were too high”.
“Personally, I wouldn’t feel safe going to a party at the moment, if it involves being indoors in an enclosed space where you’re close to other people, and people are not wearing masks,” he told the BBC.
Scientists at the Ministry of Defence’s secure laboratory at Porton Down and elsewhere are now working round the clock to investigate Omicron’s lethality. They are examining whether the virus has escaped mutations that could get past the immunity built up by vaccinations, including the third booster jab. They are likely to report early next week.