- Since the announcement of the first cases in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong earlier this week, additional cases have been reported in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Australia and the UK.
- Such a dramatic change has raised concerns that the antibodies from previous infections or vaccination may no longer be well-matched, although it’s likely that some residual immunity, for example from T-cells, will remain.
- The government has also added to the requirements for travellers from other countries, so all international arrivals must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and self-isolate until they have a negative result.
Omicron cases have been detected in countries that welcomed immigrants from South Africa, Mozambique & Egypt chiefly as reported by The Guardian.
Cases as yet
Additional instances have been recorded in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Australia, and the United Kingdom after the initial cases were announced earlier this week in South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong. All of these cases involved people who had recently moved to the United States from South Africa, Mozambique, or Egypt.
Samples from 61 passengers who arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday and tested positive for Covid-19 are also being sequenced by Dutch police. Thirteen of these have been confirmed as Omicron instances.
Origin & Symptoms
Covid symptoms linked to the new omicron variant have been described as “extremely mild” by the South African doctor who first raised the alarm over the new strain.
According to Dr Angelique Coetzee, who runs a private practice in Pretoria, South Africa, the Omicron patients she has seen have presented with relatively mild symptoms, and none of the loss of taste or smell is typically associated with Covid-19. Instead, they have had reported, “unusual symptoms” such as intense fatigue and a high pulse rate. However, it is too soon to know whether these anecdotal reports will be true of everyone who is infected with Omicron.
“It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33 … and he said to me that he’s just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he’s got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache,” she said.
The patient didn’t have a sore throat, she said, but more of a “scratchy throat” but no cough or loss of taste or smell.
Cases identified in the UK
So far, the United Kingdom has discovered three cases: two in Nottingham and Brentwood, Essex, involving travel ties to South Africa, and a third instance involving a visitor to the UK. In order to establish more potential contacts and cases, contact tracing and targeted testing at areas where these individuals were likely to have been infectious are currently underway. All positive cases will be subjected to further genome sequencing to determine if they are infected with the Omicron variant.
Boris Johnson announced new interim and precautionary restrictions on Saturday, requiring all contacts of suspected Omicron patients to self-isolate, regardless of vaccination status.
New variant concerns
When compared to prior variants, the Omicron variant includes a lot of changes, including more than 30 in the spike protein, which is the virus’s key to entering our cells.
Because of the drastic change, there are fears that antibodies from earlier infections or vaccinations may no longer be well-matched, while residual immunity, such as from T-cells, is likely to exist.
However, these are just theories, and tests are being carried out right now to see how efficient antibodies are at neutralising Omicron.
The rapidity with which Omicron appears to have spread in South Africa, where there has been a surge of cases in the last two weeks, is also concerning.
There’s a chance this is just a statistical fluke tied to a super-spreader event, but the data is alarming enough to warrant precautions.
The UK’s ‘Red List’
From 4 pm on Sunday, passengers arriving in England from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia will be required to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days. Those who have arrived since midday on Friday but before this deadline must quarantine at home for 10 days and take NHS PCR tests on days two and eight, even if they already have a booking for a lateral flow test.
The government has also added to the requirements for travellers from other countries, so all international arrivals must take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and self-isolate until they have a negative result.
Countries with travel bans
A swath of countries has now temporarily banned travel from several southern African countries where the variant has been found, a move slammed as a “knee-jerk, draconian” reaction by South Africa’s health minister on Friday.
“Two weeks on, maybe we will say something different,” she added.
“Over 99% of cases around the world are due to the delta variant and more deaths are occurring in the unvaccinated,” WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.
Whether fresh restrictions and lockdowns might have to be introduced to counteract this new variant remain to be seen, experts say.
“The big issue and the big uncertainty is how severe illness will be with this new variant.
If it generally is causing mild disease and if, as I suspect, the booster campaign will go a long way to still reduce hospitalizations and deaths, hopefully, we won’t have to live under restrictions again.”
Israel has responded to the emergence of Omicron by banning all foreigners from entering the country for 14 days. Switzerland has imposed a 10-day quarantine on anyone arriving from the UK, regardless of their vaccination status. The same applies to travellers from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi.
Spain has also imposed restrictions on UK passengers: only those who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed in from 1 December. Previously, anyone could enter if they could show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival.
Besides the new travel measures and the requirement for contacts of suspected Omicron cases to self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status, face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday, bringing it closer in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Hospitality settings such as pubs and restaurants will be exempt from the change. The new measures will be reviewed in three weeks’ time, the prime minister has said.
The WHO has said it will take weeks to understand how the variant may affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
Within the next month, we should have a far better idea of how contagious Omicron is, and whether or not it is associated with a more severe disease. We should also know the extent to which it has been contained, or if it has spread more widely, as is expected by many scientists.
Coetzee’s initial observations are only based on a very small number of cases and experts are worried about omicron’s large number of mutations.
Early data suggests that the variant is spreading in South Africa more rapidly than previous strains did and that the variant, known formally as B.1.1.529, could be starting to trigger a new wave of infections, according to an analysis by the Financial Times.
Covid symptoms have changed since the virus first emerged in China in late 2019.
On the list of symptoms from the CDC are fever or chills, a cough, fatigue, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, muscle or body aches, headache, the new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or a runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhoea.
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