Everything scientists know about Omicron right now – from symptoms to if lateral flows can spot it

THE Omicron Covid strain is accelerating fast in the UK and has triggered Plan B measures in England – with fears more restrictions are coming.

Omicron has threatened progress against the virus, after it was thought the battle could be over thanks to vaccines.

The variant is scientifically called B.1.1.529 and has spread all over the world in the space of a month.

It was first detected in South Africa but may have evolved elsewhere.

Omicron is showing to be significantly faster spreading and able to dodge some immunity from natural infection or vaccines – this is why it is very important to have booster jabs.

A booster shot is the best protection against Omicron, with early data suggesting it pushes efficacy back up to 75 per cent.

Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA Chief Executive said: “Once again, we urge everyone who is able to get a booster jab to come forward and do so. It is the best defence we have against this highly transmissible new variant."

The Sun is also urging readers to sign up to the Jabs Army campaign to make the rollout as smooth and fast as possible.

🔵 Read our Covid-19 live blog for the latest updates

More than two thirds of eligible Brits have now received their top up protection, as the NHS booster campaign continues to protect the nation against the virus.

Cases of Omicron in the UK are currently doubling every two to three days, the top medical officers and scientists say.

So, what do we know about Omicron so far, and how has it changed the Covid situation?

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When did Omicron first appear?

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated it a “variant of concern” on November 26, because it has several mutations which mean it is more difficult to predict how it will behave.

Does it spread faster?

UK scientists became aware of the new strain on November 23, after samples were uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.

But its growth in countries including South Africa and the UK suggested it does spread quicker.

Omicron is more transmissible compared with other variants as a result of its biology.

It is able to replicate faster and also infect people faster, meaning it spreads quicker.

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said: "Omicron is spreading far rapidly than its Delta variant."

Do vaccines work against it?

Studies in laboratories have suggested that antibodies in the blood do not fend Omicron off as well.

However, experts are confident as new data from Pfizer reveals two jabs do work to prevent serious illness from the mutant strain.

Getting a booster shot, or a third dose, "turbocharges immunity" and is what is needed to successfully beat the variant, the study found.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” said Albert Bourla, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Pfizer.

Sir Patrick Vallance said vaccine makers are already looking at how they can make them more effective against emerging variants, and that a jab designed to specifically target the Omicron variant could be created in “about 100 days”.

Are symptoms the same?

The doctor who first sounded the alarm about the Omicron variant claimed that it causes different symptoms, with more experts agreeing as evidence emerges.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical Association, said the main symptoms of Omicron are fatigue, body aches and headache.

Dr Coetzee, who is also on the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, said that unlike Delta, so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and lead scientist on the Zoe study, said early signs "show that Omicron is breaking through in vaccinated people, but it’s causing milder cold-like symptoms".

He also said people seem to be logging the same top five symptoms of a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, sore throats.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there was "some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta".

This could be the way the virus has evolved, because it is infecting younger people, or because vaccines are dampening its severity.

Why is Omicron so infectious?

Omicron has over 50 mutations that make it better able to break through the body's defenses and infect us.

It can also evade immunity from vaccines and prior natural infection – although boosters provide better protection.

But this means it can infect people where other variants couldn't, and spread further.

Does it cause more severe illness?

Deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said there are still uncertainties about Omicron's impact on severity of disease.

While there is some speculation that symptoms are more mild, hospitalisations are still increasing in South Africa.

Experts do think it largely causes a shorter and more mild illness – although it can still feel pretty unpleasant.

But while hospitalisations could still pick up, at the moment it is not translating into huge numbers of seriously ill patients.

Can I get infected with Delta and the Omicron?

Yes. There is a very real risk of getting a "dual infection" from both Omicron and Delta.

Dr Paul Burton, chief medical officer for Moderna, said: "In the near future these two viruses are going to coexist.

"Omicron is going to infect people with a very strong background of Delta.

"I think Omicron poses a real threat – the doubling time at three days is far faster than we've seen.

"People can harbor both viruses, and that could be possible here. it certainly could be [much worse].

"It give an opportunity for the two viruses could share genes and swap genes over."

Do lateral flow and PCR tests work?

After fears were sparked that the devices have been missing Omicron cases in the UK, it was confirmed they do pick up the variant.

The at-home tests can reveal if you are carrying Covid within 30 minutes with a high degree of reliability. But of course, can throw up some false results.

Dr Jenny Harries, the UK Health Security Agency's (UKHSA) chief executive, today said that data coming in shows that lateral flows can detect Omicron and other variants.

She said: "This is very encouraging. As we all work to limit the high levels of transmission of this variant over the Christmas period, we are urging people to test regularly, particularly before attending social gatherings.

“As always, the booster vaccine remains the best protection against infection. Please come forward to receive your booster as soon as possible.”

PCRs are still thought of as the "gold standard" and are picking up positive cases.

But if you have negative results and are experiencing symptoms, do try to self isolate and take a secondary test to be sure.

However, at the moment, whatever your result – it's best to isolate where possible if you are feeling unwell to stop any spread.

Making sure you take the tests correctly is also key – have a look at our guide to test taking, where you can find answers to all your questions.

What should I do if someone in my house has Covid?

Try and isolate from them – if they can stay in their room, however boring it is, that is best.

If they need to use rooms you are in, try not to be in there at the same time and keep windows open.

Make sure you clean spots you will both use, like bathroom taps and toilet flushes.

Wearing masks when they move about will also help cut any risk of transmission.

If I'm vaccinated, can I still get Omicron?

Yes. Two shots offer much less protection against the new variant.

Even if you get the booster you can still catch it – no vaccine offers complete protection against any disease.

But your chances will be far, far, reduced if you have the booster shot.

Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser for UKHSA, said: 'I think what we're seeing is that if you've had two doses more than three months ago, then it's not going to prevent you from getting symptomatic disease.'

How long does it take for my booster to kick in?

It won't be straight away, but it will be quicker than the first two shots.

It should take between seven to 14 days to kick in, so to be on the safe side think of day 10 as when you'll be fully protected.

From that point antibody levels should stay high for up to six weeks before they start to gradually decline.

Why do some people feel ill after getting the jab?

Everyone has a different response to the vaccine.

For some they will feel a bit ill for a day or two – and this is their body essentially practicing how to respond to the virus.

Any aches or fevery feelings are not due to the vaccine, but is the body responding to what is in the vaccine.

For most people they will be mild and only last for a short time.

But of course for some it will be longer and may cause adverse reactions, but this is very rare.

Where did Omicron come from?

Experts say the variant may have evolved in a chronically sick person.

This is how the Alpha variant, first seen in Kent at the end of 2020, was suspected to have developed, too.

Prof Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has said: “B.1.1.529 has signatures of cumulative mutation indicating that it emerged in a chronic infection.”

When will it peak?

This isn't clear, but experts generally think it will peak faster than other variants.

This is due to how fast it is spreading now, meaning more people will be infected quicker and the peak will therefore come sooner.

Why did the Government trigger Plan B?

Until now, ministers had kept most of their Plan B measures in reserve for if Covid-19 cases rose so high that they placed the NHS under unsustainable pressure.

But with concerns mounting, the Government has triggered Plan B from December 10.

Sage, the Government's scientific advisory panel, has said Plan B measures will have the greatest effect if brought in in one go.

Of the individual measures, the scientists advising Government believe working from home will have the biggest impact on slowing the spread of the virus.

Many MPs have questioned why the tougher rules were brought in if hospitalisations and deaths were not growing.

Prof Spector and other scientists say that even if disease is more mild, a higher rate of transmission could still have “devastating” consequences.

Sage said it is possible hospital admissions from the new variant in England could exceed 1,000 per day – and still be increasing – by the end of the year.

A modelling sub-group of Sage said that if Omicron’s immune escape reduces vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation from, say, 96 per cent to 92 per cent, “that would effectively double the number of vaccinated individuals who are not protected from hospitalisation.”

What is Plan B?

The Government has brought back guidance to work from home, alongside face masks in most indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas.

Exceptions to wearing masks include when eating, drinking, exercising or singing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Mandatory vaccine passports have been brought in for larger events and nightclubs, so that people can prove they are double-jabbed.

Venues include those indoors that are unseated with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people and any venue hosting more than 10,000 people.

A negative lateral flow test will also be sufficient proof, with all measures coming into force in seven days’ time, Mr Johnson said.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, vaccine passports are already in force for various venues.

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