Covid: What do we know about the Omicron variant and should we be worried?

Three cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant have been detected in the UK.

The latest case was confirmed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Sunday, who said the person tested positive for the variant after arriving in the UK and that the case is related to a trip to southern Africa.

The UKHSA said the person was in Westminster, in central London, during his stay, but that he is no longer in the UK.
One of the previously reported cases is in Brentwood, Essex, while the other is in Nottingham, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

The two cases are linked and there is also a link to travel to southern Africa.

At a press conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a series of measures in an attempt to curb the spread of Omicron in the UK.

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Meanwhile, countries around the world, including the UK, have been imposing travel restrictions on the region in an attempt to halt or at least slow the spread of the variant that scientists fear could be more resistant to the protection they offer. vaccines.

The Omicron variant has been designated as one of "concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), with a UK health official calling it the "worst we've seen so far".

The appearance of this variant has caused fears among some scientists that its significant number of mutations could be resistant to current vaccines, however this has not yet been proven and experts have advised against panic.

A host of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Israel, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand, and the US, joined others, including the European Union and the United Kingdom, in imposing restrictions to the countries of southern Africa.

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So what do we know about the variant, formally named Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa?

In which countries has the variant been detected?

The variant was first seen in Botswana on November 11.

It was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November.
In addition to two cases in the UK, the variant has also been identified in Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, and Australia.
One case, identified in Hong Kong, involved a traveler returning from South Africa. Belgium confirmed the first European case on Friday.

On Saturday, Italy and Germany reported cases of the new variant.

An official from the German state of Hesse tweeted that the variant had likely arrived in the country after "typical Omicron mutations" were found in someone returning from South Africa.

And Australia reported two positive cases of the Omicron variant, among a group of 14 who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday.

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Separately, 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for the Omicron variant. They are among the 61 people who tested positive for the coronavirus on the two flights that arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport; all passengers are currently isolated.

Positive cases of the variant have been recorded in South Africa after genomic sequencing.

Through laboratory analysis, genomic sequencing identifies the genetic makeup of a virus in order to detect new variants or mutations.

How fast is the Omicron variant spreading in South Africa?

Experts have said that there has been a rapid increase in the number of cases in South Africa in recent days.

"There has been an increase in South Africa in several provinces over the last few days," Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, told ITV News.

"Only a small proportion of new Covid infections go through genetic sequencing, so the numbers could be higher."

"But it is premature to be alarming. We will soon know if there is any evidence that this is spreading more generally," he added.

Detected cases of the Omicron variant are said to be increasing particularly rapidly in the South African provinces of Gauteng, Northwest and Limpopo.

Provincial health authorities remain on high alert, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

How has the World Health Organization reacted to the appearance of the new strain?

The strain has been classified as a "variant of concern", the most worrisome type, as the well-known delta variant, by the World Health Organization.

On Friday, the WHO said the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost every province in South Africa.
"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are worrisome," the UN public health body said in a statement.

"Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant."

What precautionary measures has the UK already taken in relation to the variant?

On Sunday, the government announced that children from Year 7 and older will be encouraged to cover their faces in the common areas of schools and universities in England from Monday.

Under the new guidance, all Year 7 staff, visitors and students in Year 7, junior year of high school, or higher are “strongly encouraged” to use a canopy, unless exempted.

The measures cover all educational establishments, including universities, as well as child care settings, such as early childhood care.

Face covering will also be mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday.

Anyone arriving in the country from abroad after 4 a.m. on Tuesday will have to take a PCR test, with the expectation of having to isolate themselves until they test negative.

Additionally, contacts of people who have tested positive for the Omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status, and booster shots will be extended to more people.

South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia have been included in the travel red list.
Starting at 4am on Sunday, anyone arriving in the UK from one of these countries must be quarantined in a government-approved hotel for 10 days at a cost of £ 2,285 per adult. These packages can be booked through the government website.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said anyone returning to the UK before then must self-quarantine at home for 10 days and undergo PCR testing on days two and eight of their isolation.
It is believed that anyone who has been to these countries in the last 10 days will be invited to take a Covid test.

Over 10 million Covid cases recorded in the UK since the start of the pandemic
What have the prime minister and the experts said?

At a press conference in Downing Street on Saturday, Boris Johnson said current scientific knowledge is that the Omicron variant "spreads very quickly and can be spread between people who have been double vaccinated."

He said the additional measures were being introduced in an attempt to "slow planting" of the variant.

Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said he expects Omicron's numbers to continue to rise around the world as it spreads rapidly.

He went on to say that the "extensive mutations" of the new variant mean that "there is a reasonable chance that there is some degree of escape from the vaccine," but he is hopeful that current injections can prevent serious disease even if the vaccine does not prevent. spread as much as would be desirable.

He added that this means there is an even greater need for everyone to have dual shots and boosters.

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance agreed that the UK's most important defense against Omicron today was vaccination.

Sir Patrick added that, in theory, current vaccines can be easily modified for new variants, which could be accomplished in 100 days, and antiviral drugs are starting to work as well.

The UK Health Security Agency has said it is closely monitoring the situation.

Many scientists have said that people in the UK shouldn't panic over the new strain as it is in the early stages of its development, meaning there is little widespread evidence of its effects.

But experts have said that the variant, like other viruses, can reach the UK through overseas travel.