Omicron: How Worried Should We Be?

High community transmission in the UK has left some people fearing the variant could be the most dangerous yet.
Diverse people at the vaccination center. woman receiving covid-19 vaccine.
South_agency via Getty Images
Diverse people at the vaccination center. woman receiving covid-19 vaccine.

The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly around the world, triggering concerns it could soon replace Delta become the dominant Covid strain.

There is evidence Omicron is now spreading between people with no connection to international travel in the UK, with 336 confirmed cases across the country as of Monday.

The health secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons this week that there’s no guarantee the variant would not “knock us off our road to recovery”.

So how worried should we be about Omicron? Here’s what specialists have been able to conclude from the very early data.

Fewer deaths from Omicron so far

It appears that Covid deaths have not risen in South Africa – where the variant was first reported – despite the surge in infections.

Yet, hospitalisations and deaths usually lag behind large outbreaks. The variant was only reported in November, so current hospital admissions might not be the whole picture.

As the Financial Times’ John Burns-Murdoch pointed out in a Twitter thread, the new variant appears to only now be spreading into older age-groups in South Africa, which might explain why there have been few hospitalisations so far.

Omicron symptoms may be less severe than Delta

Researchers from a Pretoria hospital in South Africa said early reports show their patients are not as sick as those who were hospitalised with the Delta variant. They claim most of their Covid patients actually came in with other conditions, and appear to have no symptoms from the deadly virus.

It’s important to note these findings are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed. The researchers also do not know how many of their patients had Omicron, compared to the other variants.

However, Javid told the Commons on Monday there have not been any hospitalisations in the UK yet.

He said: “Some [positive cases] may be asymptomatic, others will be feeling ill. None of them, so far, as far as I am aware, have been hospitalised.”

Severity of the symptoms doesn’t necessarily matter

Even though the variant does not appear to trigger severe symptoms in most people, if the overall number of cases is much higher than with other variants the NHS could still be overwhelmed in coming months.

NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) held a meeting at the end of November and concluded there were “worrying signals” about the spread of the variant.

Although the specialists concluded there was “insufficient data” available on the severity of the disease, the group decided it “cannot rule out that this [strain] may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity”.

Higher transmissibility

Early indications suggest Omicron is more transmissible than previous strains.

According to South Africa’s president, the virus is spreading faster than ever there. The country’s government has also suggested last week that 75% of virus samples so far have been identified as Omicron.

King’s College London professor Tim Spector also said the variant appears to have 30-40% greater transmissibility, although this stat may change as scientists uncover further data.

Javid said on Monday that the gap between infection and infectiousness appears to be shorter with Omicron than with Delta anyway – meaning an infected individual could pass it on without knowing it.

Imperial college professor Neil Ferguson has suggested that UK infections are doubling every three days or fewer as well, despite the government’s preventative measures brought in last week.

Will the vaccine offer enough protection?

There are concerns that the mutation in Omicron’s spike protein will lessen the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the new strain.

Spector said: “Most people believe the vaccines will work – but how much difference will there be in the effectiveness compared to, say, Delta?”

However, he continued: “Even if it does reduce the vaccine effectiveness by 10%, the booster, the third vaccine, increases your protection by 10 or 20% anyway.

“So hopefully we will neutralise any negative side of it.”

The government has recruited an extra 10,000 vaccinators to push the booster jabs programme and 350 military personnel will be deployed to help the rollout in England.

More than 100 military figures will also assist in Scotland.