My stomach lurched when I first heard about Omicron, a new, highly mutated variant of Covid-19 that led, this week, to the reintroduction of masks and a fear of more restrictions to come. So how worried should we be?
Well, after contacting one of the UK’s leading experts, I think that while there is reason to continue being careful, because it’s currently a worrying variant, the most important thing we can all do is get the booster jab, which offers the reassurance of real protection.
Robin Shattock, who is a professor of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London, has spent decades working on vaccines against a range of infectious diseases, including, most recently, Covid-19.
He told me that although he thinks Omicron may indeed turn out to be highly infectious, for him the most important question to answer is: what impact will the new strain have on rates of hospitalisation and death?
I recently had to tell a friend, who has chosen not to get vaccinated, that he is no longer welcome to a small social gathering I’ve organised next week
Although the data coming out of South Africa, where it was first detected, suggest Omicron is highly infectious, so far it doesn’t seem to be more deadly than other variants, although we won’t know for sure for several weeks.
The other big question is whether our current vaccines will continue to protect us.
While Omicron is very different from the Alpha variant and the original strain that came out of Wuhan two years ago, Professor Shattock thinks that being vaccinated will still give our immune systems the edge.
As he explains: ‘If your immune system has seen a similar variant, it already has a head start to make an adapted response to a new one.’
If it turns out Omicron is better at evading our immune system, Professor Shattock says manufacturers will be able to modify their vaccines. As this could take a couple of months, and probably won’t be rolled out much before April, he says: ‘If you need a booster, don’t wait for an updated version of the vaccine; your best option is to get what’s available now.’
I had my booster last week and the rest of my family are lining up to have theirs as soon as possible. I was pleased that, having previously had two AstraZeneca jabs, this time I had the Pfizer.
The two vaccines work in slightly different ways, with studies suggesting that the AstraZeneca produces a larger and longer lasting T-cell response (these are the immune cells that seek out and destroy viruses), while the Pfizer vaccine produces a slightly more powerful antibody response (antibodies are proteins that attach to the virus to tag it for destruction).
I had my booster last week and the rest of my family are lining up to have theirs as soon as possible. I was pleased that, having previously had two AstraZeneca jabs, this time I had the Pfizer
This means that the Pfizer vaccine is probably better at protecting you against getting infected, while the AstraZeneca ‘may provide longer-term protection against hospitalisation and death’, says Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh.
She and other experts have also suggested that because the vaccines mobilise T-cells, which are less ‘susceptible’ than antibodies to simple virus mutations, the jabs should continue to protect against severe infection.
Certainly Professor Shattock agrees that having a mix seems to be the best option, though the good news is that when it comes to protecting you against ending up in hospital, both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs have so far proved to be amazingly effective. Long may that continue.
Apart from getting a booster, what else can you do to ensure a merry, Covid-free Christmas? One thing that is clear, which wasn’t obvious at the start of the pandemic, is that this is almost entirely an airborne disease, so washing your hands or surfaces isn’t going to make a lot of difference.
What we now know is that you’re most likely to get infected in a confined, poorly ventilated space, surrounded by lots of people, none of whom are wearing masks, and many of whom are talking animatedly.
This may mean cutting back on socialising in the run-up to Christmas, particularly with people who are not vaccinated.
I recently had to tell a friend, who has chosen not to get vaccinated, that he is no longer welcome to a small social gathering I’ve organised next week.
As I explained, that’s because recent studies suggest an unvaccinated person is up to 20 times more likely to infect you than someone who is vaccinated — and none of the rest of the people who have been invited to my party wants to risk getting infected and passing it on to more vulnerable, elderly relatives. It was a tricky conversation.
As for wearing masks, a recent review of the research by scientists at the University of Oxford concluded that wearing a simple mask will halve the number of viral particles you breathe out, which means you’re significantly less likely to infect others (a visor, however, has almost no effect).
What this means in real terms was highlighted by a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., which compared schools where masks are compulsory with those where they’re not.
Researchers found mask-wearing schools were three and a half times less likely to have Covid-19 outbreaks.
The bottom line: this new variant shows that the Covid-19 virus is not done with us yet, and few of us could face another lockdown.
So be careful.
At least a dozen different species of human have walked the Earth, and now there’s just us, homo sapiens.
Arguably, it was the invention of language and the ability to make and use tools that made us top dogs. If it was the latter, it’s just as well I wasn’t an early human, because I’m terrible at DIY (take the double glazing I installed, which fell out). But if I worked on my DIY skills, might that also improve my language skills?
That was the surprising conclusion of a Swedish study, which showed these two abilities rely on neural pathways in the same area of the brain, and reinforce each other.
Researchers found that getting people to do tasks with a pair of pliers improved their results in language tests, and vice versa. This also shows how entwined these two skills really are.
Fasting is good for your pets, too!
I’m a big fan of a type of extended, overnight fasting, called time-restricted eating — where you try to go longer without eating by extending your normal overnight fast.
The easiest way to do this is to stop eating a few hours before bed, and then delay your breakfast for an hour or so.
There is evidence that going without food, overnight, for 12 hours or more leads to modest weight loss and improvements in blood pressure, blood sugar and blood fat levels.
And what’s good for humans may also be good for our pets. Our family dog, a King Charles Spaniel called Tari, is fed once a day. But I must confess I also give her scraps from our evening meal.
Perhaps I shouldn’t. A recent study by the University of Washington in the U.S. based on the eating habits of more than 24,000 dogs found that feeding pets just once a day may be key to keeping them healthier as they age.
Not only did the dogs given food once daily show fewer signs of dementia, they also had lower rates of ‘gastrointestinal, dental, orthopaedic, kidney/urinary, and liver/ pancreas disorders’.
In other words, dogs that fasted for a big chunk of the day were enjoying a healthier old age. They were, presumably, also costing significantly less in vet bills.
This follows another study, published last year by the University of Guelph, in Canada, which found that feeding cats one meal a day makes them leaner and healthier. In the study, eight healthy cats had one large meal a day, or four small ones (in both cases with the same total amount of food).
After three weeks, they swapped to the other eating pattern. Research showed that when the cats were fed once a day they were less hungry and demanding; they also burned more fat and put on more lean muscle. This is important because cats, like humans, tend to lose muscle mass with age.
So though it may seem harsh, a time-restricted eating plan may be just what your pet needs.