Groundhog Day news: Scientists have discovered a new coronavirus variant that is causing concern.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which named the B.1.1.529 version as omicron is believed to have the most transmissible variant. This variant was first discovered in Hong Kong, South Africa, and Botswana.
There are also concerns that vaccines may not be as effective as one would hope in blocking it – though more research must be done to clarify this.
The UK and other nations have now red-listed the affected countries in an effort to stop people traveling with an invisible extra passenger. This is a major step forward for scientists who are trying to collect evidence about the risks it poses.
As they do so, here’s everything we know about Covid’s unwanted reboot.
What’s the new version?
The new variant should be named ‘the for f**ks sake not this again variant’Instead, it has been named Omicron after the 15th letter of the Greek Alphabet. Described at early stages as the worst scientists have seen in the pandemic, it has around 40 unusual mutations in the spike protein – the part of the virus vaccines use to block it – meaning it could be more transmissible.
Mutations in the spike protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen and the number of mutations is about double the number associated with the Delta variant.
It was designated a variant concern by the World Health Organisation on 26 November. The World Health Organisation also stated that there are no indications that the symptoms of the virus might be different.
It is not known where it was found.
It’s dotting about and has been found in 22 countries since it was first reported in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. Scientists believe that the strain could have been first detected in Gauteng in South Africa, where it is believed to be 90%.
Friday saw the confirmation that two cases were identified in Israel, Belgium and England. 22 cases have now been confirmed in England.
The Netherlands was also of concern. Dutch authorities stated that 61 people had tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday after two South African flights. 13 of these were omicron. The country is now imposing early closings for cultural venues and hospitality, as well as restrictions on home gatherings.
Is it spreading fast?
It’s hard to tell. Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the UK Health and Security Agency, said the R rate – which measures how fast the virus spreads – in Gauteng is now 2, a level of transmission not recorded since the beginning of the pandemic. An epidemic will spread exponentially if the R rate is greater than 1.
All 9 cases discovered in Scotland are linked to one event. The 9 cases in Scotland were not in those with a travel history to southern Africa or who are known to have connections to others who have traveled there, raising concerns about the spread of community concern.
The UK has launched a tracking and tracing system to help cases be tracked down. “loop back”Analyzing PCR samples from previously collected samples is a way to determine the variant.
Scientists have suggested that the virus has been present in the UK since October. However, others disagree and feel it is quite new.
Dr Richard Lessells is an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. “plausible”Given that this was the tail-end of the Delta wave South Africa. “This is consistent with how and when we’ve seen other variants of concern emerge; for example, the Beta variant emerged last year towards the tail end of our first wave,”He stated.
What do experts say?
As always, efforts to “follow the science”Scientists with mixed opinions are adding to the confusion. Sky News’ Tom Peacock is a virologist at Imperial College London. The mutations were described as “really awful”However, these cases are currently being investigated “super low”.
Francois Balloux from University College London is professor of computational system biology. He believes it should be closely observed but “there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future”.
Talk to The Telegraph, Dr Emma Hodcroft is a molecular epidemiologist from the University of Bern. “We cannot perfectly predict virus behaviour from mutations.
“Even lab work doesn’t perfectly mirror what happens in complex, whole-body real-life. Other, alarming variants have failed to spread very far in the past. We need more data.”
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist from Imperial College, London, also added: “We have all become pandemic fatigued, yet if this was a report of a terrorist threat, we would now be raising the threat level from amber to red.”
To The Mirror Professor Ewan Birney, deputy director general of EMBL and director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), said: “Early evidence from genomic surveillance in South Africa suggests that B.1.1.529 is a serious cause for concern. The South African surveillance and epidemiology groups should be commended for their timely data collection, analysis and transparency.”
There will be more scientific contributions in the days and weeks ahead, it is certain.
Can the vaccines be used to protect against it?
There are still mixed opinions. Although it’s too early to know for certain, the WHO stated today that most cases of the virus are mild and there is no evidence that vaccines are ineffective against them. However, the organisation made it clear that there is still a lot we don’t know about the new strain.
Researchers are currently investigating whether the new variant could be causing new infections in patients who have received a coronavirus vaccine or another vaccine.
Professor James Naismith of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford has confirmed that the new version will be offered. “almost certainly”Vaccines will be less effective but still provide protection.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the man who created the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccination, expressed optimism about the effectiveness of existing vaccines in protecting against severe disease from the new omicron variant.
He also stated that it was. “extremely unlikely”It will lead to a “reboot”He expressed concern about the British pandemic and offered some hope that the current jabs would still provide some protection. He said that a new vaccine might be developed. “very rapidly”If they are required, because they now have a “well-oiled” process.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines and had begun work on a variation of their jab to tweak it if needs be.
Oxford University has also suggested that AstraZeneca could be quickly modified to match the new strain.
What are the UK’s plans to combat the variant?
The UK government placed South Africa on the red list, effective Friday at noon, after perhaps learning from the inexplicable rush to reduce travel from India when the Delta variant was first discovered there.
This ban will also apply to flights from Namibia and Lesotho as well as Botswana, Eswatini, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Scotland confirmed that all visitors from these countries must self isolate and undergo two PCR testing starting at midday Friday. Any arrivals after 4am Saturday will be required to stay at a managed quarantine facility.
Travel restrictions will be in place for Angola, Mozambique and Zambia starting Sunday
The red list was previously scrapped earlier in the month. Final countries were removed from the list.
To prevent the introduction of the new strain, any recent arrivals from South Africa will also need to be tested. Each day, approximately 500 to 700 people travel to the UK via South Africa every day.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, has also announced that all visitors to the UK will need to submit to a PCR test. The rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport will be tightened, with those who refuse them risking £200 fines, while any close contacts of anyone who tests positive with the variant will have to isolate for ten days.
Sajid Javid, health secretary, said that if it is proven that the variant poses no greater danger than delta, restrictions will be removed immediately. However they will still be reviewed in three week.
The government’s booster jab programme is being… boosted and Johnson has said that everyone over the age of 18 will now be eligible to get jabbed for a third time by the end of January. The hattrick of jabs used to be only available for those over 40 and other vulnerable groups.
The gap between boosters or second doses of steroids has also been reduced from six months down to three. Furthermore, the government now offers second jabs to 12–15-year-olds.
There was also a palaver about with government scientist Jennie Harries saying people shouldn’t socialise if not “necessary”Downing Street said that people should not heed that advice.
Further restrictions haven’t been ruled out as more data emerges.
What are other countries doing in this area?
Israel announced that it would ban citizens from traveling to these six countries. It also banned travellers from Mozambique. Meanwhile, the European Commission announced plans to halt flights from the region.
Spain has made it impossible for Brits to enter the country without being vaccinated. Switzerland has also ordered that any passengers coming from countries where the variant is known, including the UK, must show proof of negative coronavirus tests and be quarantined for a period of 10 days.
WHO issued Tuesday night a statement stating that all vulnerable persons, including over-60s, should delay travel plans due to the new variant.
Greece made it mandatory that people over 60 get a jab. Nigeria started mandating Covid vaccinations for civil servants.
Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission said that mandatory vaccines should be considered. She also mentioned that other countries have taken various measures.
WHO continues to evaluate the variant, even though it has been upgraded to a variant that is of concern.
Professor Neil Ferguson, giving evidence at the government’s science and technology committee today said it might take until around the end of the month to find out how deadly the strain is.
Some variants of omicron that were previously identified caused initial concern, but were then outflanked and vanished. It is now up to you to decide if omicron brings the world to a halt again.