Omicron set to dominate in UK within weeks, says expert

The Omicron variant could supersede other strains of COVID-19 within the next few weeks to become dominant in the UK, according to an infectious diseases expert.

Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia told the BBC this morning that it is likely there is already more than 1,000 cases of Omicron (also known as B.1.1.529) in the country, four times higher than government estimates.

While there are still a lot of unknowns about the new variant, including its potential to cause severe illness, “what we can be pretty confident about is that a booster dose of vaccine offers the best chance to avoid severe disease and death,” he said.

Hunter also believes that COVID-19 will be around forever, but eventually immunity among the population from vaccination and infections will mean that in the majority of cases it will be “just another cause of the common cold.”

Official UK numbers indicate there were nearly 44,000 new COVID-19 infections yesterday (5 December), in line with the average over the last couple of weeks, and there has been a surge in cases of Omicron since it was first identified in the UK on 27 November.

The number of confirmed Omicron cases was 246 at last count, but rising swiftly. In South Africa where the virus was first studied, the variant has become dominant in some areas and appears to be driving a fourth wave of infections. They seem to be milder however, with symptoms including fatigue, sore throat and dry cough.

On the other hand, last week saw the first evidence of re-infection with Omicron from a real-world study in people who previously had COVID-19, suggesting it can evade community from prior exposure and – potentially at least – vaccination.

Omicron has more mutations affecting the spike protein targeted by vaccines than any other strain identified to date – up to 32 mutations versus eight for the Delta variant – but it’s still not clear how they affect the transmissibility and virulence of the virus.

Fears about the new variant have led to the re-introduction of measures to try to reduce its spread, including the use of masks in some public areas, new travel restrictions and testing for travellers to the UK. However, the government is relying mainly on the use of booster vaccines to mitigate its potential impact.

Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, one of the creators of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, also warned today that future pandemics could prove more dangerous than the current COVID-19 crisis, and said that funding must be made available for pandemic preparedness.

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