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Omicron: what do we know?

Omicron: what do we know?


Even though it’s more transmissible, there’s a chance the new Covid variant might be weaker than others. And that might be because, as the virus mutates, it loses its “fitness”…

Nimo omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, the new highly infectious variant of Covid: what do we know and how worried should we be? 


I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta, and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least.

Professor Paul Hunter

That’s Professor Paul Hunter. He’s a professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia  and is a specialist in Medical Microbiology. 

He’s talking about the new covid variant – Omicron –  that’s troubling the world. 

South Africa, which recorded some of the earliest cases of Omicron is seeing a major increase in cases over the last week.


It was first detected by South African scientists on November 24th. 

And in the weeks since, the Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries, according to the World Health Organisation. The UK Health Security Agency says Omicron is infecting a thousand people a day.

And as scientists like Professor Paul Hunter are suggesting, the new variant seems to be highly transmissible.

There’ve been lockdowns: 

Here we go again. Slovakia’s government has now approved a two week national lockdown amid a record surge of coronavirus infections.


 And controversial travel restrictions…: 

The rules around traveling into the UK have been tightened again in a bid to control the spread of the new Omicron variant of covid. The British government says the move is necessary because of an increase in cases of the strain which are directly linked to foreign travel.


And there is a reason why governments are so skittish for the last 18 months or so, highly infectious variants of covid are usually precursors for all kinds of chaos. 

Overwhelmed hospitals, long term health consequences,  deaths.

But now – with many people being double vaccinated and with booster shots on the way (in richer countries, at least) – the results might look a little different. Because even though it’s potentially more transmissible there’s a chance that omicron might be weaker than previous variants of covid19. 

So what does this new variant actually mean for all of us? 


Christmas is on, for now, after reports this morning that Boris Johnson is going to rule out further festive covid restrictions however with Omicron cases gripping the nation do we need further restrictions to prevent a new year surge?


The question on everyone’s mind is: how serious is omicron? And by serious we mean, dangerous. 

Well, initially, cases have so far appeared to be mild but this could change: symptoms include scratchy throats, headaches and achy joints.  

Omicron is the most heavily mutated version of covid-19 so far. And that has unsurprisingly worried people. Scientists think the Omicron variant seems to bypass the immune system, meaning it can reinfect people even if they’ve had Covid already.   

This also means that even those who are double (or triple) vaccinated may still get infected. 

But it’s important to remember that lots of mutations doesn’t necessarily mean Omicron is more dangerous. The vaccines we have on hand may turn out to be a less than optimal match for this variant, but they can still create a very good shield against it. 

And manufacturers are currently looking at ways to update existing vaccines to battle against what will probably be the dominant variant. 

The general consensus in the virology community is that when a virus mutates again and again, it loses some “fitness”.  

As Professor Paul Hunter has pointed out, the last time there was a big coronavirus outbreak was around 130 years ago.

This is not the first time that we’ve had a big coronavirus pandemic. The last one was actually over a hundred years ago now but it ultimately becomes just another cause of the common cold and the issue is how do we get there with minimum suffering and minimum harm.

CNBC International TV

And that virus is still circulating: we get infected with it fairly regularly, every three to six years.  Basically, it triggers the common cold. This is why in August, Professor Paul Hunter said that we need to stop mass testing and we should learn to live with the virus.

“In your view then we need to stop mass testing because it’s a waste of time and money and disruptive and we don’t need to wear masks.”

“We’re going towards what the Australians call an in immunology deficit, in that we are losing immunity to many of the other respiratory viruses that that operate in many ways very similar to the other human coronaviruses. Ultimately because we’re increasing the gap between infections with these other viruses when we get them again we’re going to be more ill than we would have been otherwise i would end up being more sick.”


So – what will the next few months look like? 


It’ll take a few more weeks to find out all we need to know about Omicron.

Professor Paul Hunter may be erring slightly on the more optimistic side but he’s still cautious. Because it can take up to 10 days for people to get ill after being infected, doctors are only now seeing how severe the impact of omicron is.

Professor Paul Hunter also points to the differences between countries:  South Africa and the UK are not that similar when it comes to covid.

There’s a younger population in South Africa and there’s lower vaccine uptake so he’s slightly wary of direct comparisons between the two. 

For now, to keep us safe whilst scientists continue to gather evidence on Omicron, governments need to ensure everyone is being vaccinated.

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.