Omicron, the name of the new Covid-19 variant that is sending worrying signals from southern Africa, sounds like something from Transformers. It has caused panic across the world, among governments, the public and the stock markets. After adding a number of southern African countries to the red list, the UK government has reimposed mandatory masks in England from Tuesday, and will require anyone travelling to the country from abroad to take a PCR test. Omicron is probably the first variant to have scientists worried since Delta became the predominant strain in every country last summer. But how bad it is? What does it mean for future lockdowns – and future deaths?
Scientists are waiting on three pieces of data before they will be able to tell what effect this new variant will have over the next six to 12 months. The first is how infectious Omicron is. Can it outcompete Delta? Earlier this year we saw another worrying variant, Beta, that luckily faded away as a result of a selective advantage in Delta that allowed it to transmit faster between people. Limited data from South Africa shows that Omicron is very infectious, but whether it will become the predominant strain remains to be seen.
Watch: What do we know about the Omicron variant?
The second thing scientists are waiting for is data showing the impact of this new variant on health outcomes – both in terms of hospitalisations and deaths. The reason governments impose lockdown measures is because hospitals fill up; limiting social mixing helps to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the impact on health services. In an optimistic scenario, Omicron may cause less severe disease and become more like the common cold. In a more realistic scenario, it could cause the same disease levels that we’ve seen with Alpha, Beta and Delta.
The third and most concerning piece of data is the potential for Omicron to erode the immunity afforded by vaccines. Crucially, this wouldn’t necessarily mean that our current vaccines would stop working against Omicron. It would mean they would be less effective at stopping transmission – and, most worryingly, at stopping people from going into hospital and dying. This is based on a virological analysis of the sequencing of Omicron’s genome, and we don’t yet know the implications it will have in the real world. Companies such as BioNTech, which developed the Pfizer vaccine, are already trying to gauge the impact their vaccine will have on this variant.
So what does this mean for each of us? Right now, we need to continue to do all the things we should already be doing to get through the harsh winter months: getting vaccinated, and boosted, to protect ourselves; using the free home-testing kits to ensure we’re not infecting others, whether in friends’ homes or in pubs and restaurants; wearing masks in crowded places such as public transport and shops; and being attentive to how many close contacts we have.
For governments, it means having to plan for several scenarios. The first (and best) would be that Omicron can’t outcompete Delta, or results in milder forms of the disease, or vaccine effectiveness remains high. The worst would be that an updated vaccine is urgently required (scientists could theoretically deliver one in a matter of weeks), followed by a massive vaccination campaign to get this variant-specific booster out to populations as quickly as possible. Governments have learned that it’s better to move earlier with precautionary measures rather than waiting and watching a crisis unfold.
Scientists are increasingly cast in the role of “bad guys”; we’re the ones who convey difficult messages and uncertainty to the public, and are transparent on what we know and don’t know. Right now, everyone just wants Covid to be over and normal life to resume. Yet “when will this end?” is the wrong question to be asking – a more appropriate one is: “How do we manage this infectious disease in a more effective way so we get back more of our normal life?”
Last winter was particularly bad. This winter will be bad, but not to the same degree. The hope is that by the spring, and definitely by next winter, we will be in a strong position to manage this disease through testing, vaccines and antiviral therapies. But, if nothing else, Omicron has shown that all humans on this planet are in the same boat (albeit in different cabins with differential access to vaccines), and the pandemic will only be over when it’s over in all parts of the world. Not just in Britain.
Prof Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh
Watch: Boris Johnson announces tightening of coronavirus rules after new variant reaches UK