On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified a new variant of SARSCoV2, which is currently predominant in South Africa, as a “Variant of Concern” and called it Omicron. The Omicron strain of coronavirus emerges across Europe, with cases recorded in two people in the UK, two in Germany, and at least one in Italy as the latest variant of concern spreads worldwide.

It’s a fast-changing situation. Omicron’s genetic profile has raised concerns, but due to a lack of real-world data, no one knows the full extent of what it is capable of. As a result, it is unclear how serious of a threat it is. Many aspects of Omicron are being researched by researchers all over the world.

Transmissibility: It’s unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, including the Delta variant. In South Africa, which is affected by this variant, the number of positive people has increased. However, epidemiological studies are ongoing to understand if it was due to Omicron or some other factor.

Disease Severity: It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease than infections with other variants, including Delta. Preliminary data suggest hospitalisation rates are increasing in South Africa, but this could be due to the increase in the total number of people becoming infected rather than a specific Omicron infection. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are any different from other variants. The reported infections originally appeared in college students (younger people who tend to have the mildest illness), but understanding the severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks. All variants of COVID19, including the delta variant, which is dominant worldwide, can lead to severe illness or death, especially in the most vulnerable, so prevention is always the key to success.

What are the chances of re-infection?

Preliminary evidence suggests that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (i.e., people who have previously had COVID-19 may be more easily reinfected with Omicron) compared to other variants of concern but the data is limited.

Vaccine effectiveness: WHO collaborates with technical partners to better understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines, including those against the dominant circulating variant, Delta, remain critical for reducing severe disease and death. Current vaccines continue to protect against severe illness and death.

Current test effectiveness: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including Omicron infection, as we have seen with other variants. In addition, there are ongoing studies to see if there is any effect on different types of tests, such as rapid antigen detection tests.

Current treatments’ efficacy: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will continue to treat patients with severe COVID-19 effectively. Other treatments will be evaluated to see if they are still effective in light of the changes to the virus in the Omicron variant.

What guidelines UK Government measures against Omicron?

After the first two cases of the new variant were reported in Nottingham and Essex, the UK government announced that new arrivals to the UK must take a PCR test by the second day of their arrival and self-isolate until they have a negative result. Face coverings will also be required in shops and on public transportation in the UK beginning next week.

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