It has been a little over a week since scientists in Botswana and South Africa alerted the world about the emergence of a rapidly spreading new Covid variant – casting a shadow over the forthcoming festive season.
Despite gloom from some quarters about the potential risks it poses, which has seen companies scrambling to cancel Christmas parties, the Prime Minister and Health Secretary were adamant last week that the public should carry on as they have been recently.
Meanwhile, some of our European neighbours have reacted by imposing stringent travel bans, nationwide restrictions and even mandatory vaccination. Amid all this, it’s difficult to know what to make of the risks and how we should respond.
To provide some clarity, The Mail on Sunday spoke to the experts – and the prevailing attitude was that, while Omicron must be taken seriously, its emergence was not unexpected.
Of what little is known, some is concerning and some reassuring. Importantly, based on current evidence, there is no cause for panic.
Here is what you need to know.
The newly discovered Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus has caused panic across the globe, but is this fear justified? The Mail on Sunday has spoken to some of the UK’s most eminent scientists who are optimistic.
However, advice on snogging under the mistletoe this Christmas may disappoint some
Some people seem very worried about the new variant. Should I be, too?
Intense research into Omicron has only just begun, so it’s too soon to know much for certain.
So far there has been a lot of speculation ‘which isn’t helpful’, said Dr Julian Tang, a virus expert at the University of Leicester. ‘Relatively little is known about Omicron, even among scientists,’ added Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh.
The facts so far are as follows. On November 25, South African health officials announced an uptick in Covid cases linked to a new variant. Due to the large number and type of mutations, or changes, to the variant, it could be more transmissible, the scientists said – meaning it could spread faster than previous iterations.
The next day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a variant of concern, and named it Omicron – the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet – following its variant naming system.
Omicron is likely more infectious than the currently dominant Delta variant, which itself was 60 per cent more infectious than the Alpha variant which overtook the original Wuhan virus in late 2020
Millions of people such as Prue Leith, pictured here receiving her booster jab from Dr Cath Rose at the Chipping Norton Health Centre in Oxfordshire is one of the millions of people who have received additional protection against the Omicron variant
Since then it has been identified in more than 20 countries worldwide, including Britain.
On Thursday, Dr Michelle Groome of South Africa’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases said there had been an ‘exponential increase’ in infections over the past two weeks. In mid-November, the country – where just a quarter of the population have been jabbed – was seeing roughly 300 new cases per day.
Last Monday they recorded 2,858 cases. By Wednesday it was 8,561, and on Friday it was 16,055.
Based on what’s being seen there, experts say the South African scientists’ initial assessment seems correct – Omicron is likely more infectious than the currently dominant Delta variant, which itself was 60 per cent more infectious than the Alpha variant which overtook the original Wuhan virus in late 2020.
And it is this, primarily, that has caused concern.
How much more infectious is Omicron?
However, due to South Africa’s low vaccination rate it’s not possible to make direct comparisons with European countries.
‘We’d need to see more numbers before putting a figure on it,’ said Prof Woolhouse.
I have read ominous things about ‘vaccine escape’. Does this mean our jabs won’t protect us against Omicron?
The swift spread of Omicron in South Africa hints that it has some capacity to overcome existing immunity, but there is no suggestion that the vaccines will no longer be effective.
Indeed, scientists we spoke to believe the jabs will still provide an ‘incredibly strong’ protection against serious illness, which is key. And this is why the booster programme, which aims to have every adult offered a third dose by the end of January, is still vital.
The swift spread of Omicron in South Africa hints that it has some capacity to overcome existing immunity, but there is no suggestion that the vaccines will no longer be effective
What we know for certain is that a South African study published last week examined medical reports of roughly three million people with lab-confirmed Covid. It found 35,670 suspected reinfections – people who’d caught Covid a second time after having tested positive three months or more before. Based on this data, the scientists estimated Omicron was three times as likely to cause reinfection as the Delta or Alpha variants.
‘This is not overly surprising,’ said Professor Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.
‘The large number of mutations in the spike protein [is likely to] increase the Omicron variant’s ability to bypass immunity.’
The spike protein is part of the Covid virus that allows it to bind to healthy cells – much like a key entering a lock. The outer shell of the roughly spherical viral particle is covered in them.
Most Covid vaccines, including the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca jabs, are designed to mimic the coronavirus spike protein. They work, in part, by teaching the immune system to create defensive cells called antibodies which recognise and attach to this part of the virus – stopping the key from ever entering the lock.
Scientists have long known that the more changes there are to the spike protein, the more likely it is that Covid antibodies, even in a fully vaccinated individual, will not recognise the virus, allowing it to slip past the body’s defences. In Omicron, the spike protein has 32 mutations differentiating it from previous variants, which is what has led experts to suspect that existing antibodies will be less effective in fighting it off.
How much this is the case isn’t known. This is partly because antibodies are not the only cells that the immune system develops to fight off viruses.
The Covid vaccines also trigger the creation of T-cells and B-cells – fighter cells that attack foreign invaders – and experts believe that these cells will still be able to identify the Omicron variant, neutralising it before the majority of fully vaccinated people become seriously unwell.
A similar pattern was seen with the Delta variant which arrived in the UK in March. Early lab studies suggested mutations to the spike protein would allow it to slip past many of our antibodies, and scientists estimated the jabs would be only 67 per cent effective – a massive fall from the initial 90 per cent touted by the manufacturers.
However, half a year on, experts believe protection against Delta provided by the vaccines only fell by roughly three per cent.
‘We have our T-cells and B-cells to thank for this,’ said virologist Dr Tang, ‘and I expect we’ll see the same with Omicron.
‘The majority of the vaccinated population will still be protected from the worst of the disease.’
Is it true that Omicron is causing a milder illness than previous variants?
Early signs, again from South Africa, suggest that many people who catch Omicron are experiencing only mild symptoms. However, experts have warned against making too many comparisons or forecasts at this stage.
Based on the current evidence, little is known about the severity of infection – with or without vaccination – caused by Omicron. Prof Balloux said: ‘South Africa has a low vaccination rate but a large proportion of the population has been infected during previous Covid-19 waves. The population of South Africa also tends to be fairly young, with a median age of 27.6 years [compared with 40 in the UK]. More data will be needed before we can make robust predictions about the potential threat posed by a global spread of Omicron.’
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, the WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said: ‘We have seen reports of cases with Omicron that go from mild all the way to severe. There is some indication that some the patients are presenting with mild disease, but it is early days.’
The severity of Covid illness depends on a multitude of factors, which is what makes this a particularly difficult question to untangle – and a proper answer may not come for many months
The severity of Covid illness depends on a multitude of factors, which is what makes this a particularly difficult question to untangle – and a proper answer may not come for many months.
The main concern is that, even if it’s not causing severe illness in general, Omicron could spread rapidly through the vaccinated population, increasing the chances that it will reach vulnerable people whose immune systems have not been sufficiently trained by the vaccines, or the unvaccinated.
Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, said: ‘It may be a while before we know the effect on older, more vulnerable people.’
How quickly is Omicron spreading in the UK?
At the time of going to press, there have been more than 150 cases of the Omicron variant detected in the UK, but scientists believe there are already many more that haven’t been picked up.
A cluster of cases was identified in Scotland, while individual cases have been seen in Liverpool, Norfolk and Nottingham.
However, the majority have been seen in London, including an Israeli doctor who attended a medical conference before travelling back to Tel Aviv, where he was diagnosed.
Experts say these will just be ‘the tip of the iceberg’ because roughly only one in seven PCR tests are analysed for variants.
it will likely take some time before it outpaces Delta, which is still causing nearly 50,000 new cases each day
‘We know from experience of Alpha and Delta that by the time you’ve learnt it’s here, the horse has already bolted,’ said Dr Tang. ‘Considering we have so few restrictions in place, it’s likely this virus will propagate at speed.’
However, it will likely take some time before it outpaces Delta, which is still causing nearly 50,000 new cases each day.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It’s unlikely we’ll see big Omicron numbers before January.’
Will we see more restrictions?
On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that hospitalisations would be ‘what matters more than anything’ when considering further measures.
And based on what we know so far, these are unlikely to rise for some time.
The variant would have to significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines before major social restrictions such as lockdowns were necessary in the UK, experts told us.
Studies show the booster jabs, which have now been given to nearly 90 per cent of Britons over the age of 70, provide an unprecedented level of protection against the virus – and even if Omicron ‘dents’ this, we’re starting from an ideal position to fight it off, said Dr David Strain, clinical Covid lead at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.
The variant would have to significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines before major social restrictions such as lockdowns were necessary in the UK, experts told us
According to an Israeli study published in November, a third dose of the Pfizer jab increased protection against symptomatic infection to as much as 94 per cent.
The effect of this is already being seen in the UK, where hospitalisations are now falling – particularly in older age groups – even as Covid cases rise.
Dr Strain explained: ‘The boosters put us in a wonderful position before this new variant arrived. Omicron has dented that campaign somewhat, but if you are fully boosted you are still in an ideal position to defend against it.’
Disease modellers believe that the strength of the boosters is such that the NHS could ‘tolerate’ even a large wave of Omicron.
Prof Woolhouse said: ‘Healthcare settings could probably bear some fall-off in protection, given just how effective the boosters appear to be.
‘However, I’d like to see some numbers before I say that with certainty. Studies looking at how effective the boosters are against this variant are a priority right now.’
On November 25, the Government announced that it would temporarily ban travellers from six southern African countries, and reintroduce PCR tests for all passengers on arrival, no matter where from, to combat the spread of the variant.
And last week masks once again became mandatory in indoor public spaces, including shops and public transport.
These measures will buy the UK some time while scientists race to analyse the variant, Ministers have said.
We’ve been told that boosters are vital – but the rules keep changing. How will I know when and where to get mine?
Last week the Government announced that all adults would be offered a booster Covid vaccine three months after their second dose. It means the entire adult population will have at least been given the opportunity to have a third dose by the end of January.
On Friday, NHS England issued an update, saying the rollout would begin on December 13.
Until then, those eligible to book a booster remains as it was: only those aged 40 and over; those aged 16 and over with a health condition that puts them at high risk from Covid; and frontline health and social care workers who had their second dose more than six months ago.
These groups should already have received an invitation, via text message or email or both.
After December 13, as with the initial vaccine campaign, people will be invited in descending age order. Again, this will be in the form of text or email.
At present, if you look at the NHS Covid vaccine booking website, it states in a yellow box at the top of the page: ‘The NHS is working on plans to offer a booster dose to everyone aged 18 years old and over… Please wait to be contacted by the NHS.’
The Government recommends that people book a jab appointment or locate a walk-in service through the NHS website (go to nhs.uk, scroll down and click ‘Find out about Covid-19 vaccination’ – or Google ‘book a Covid jab’, and click on the top result, titled: Book or manage a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination).
The process is relatively straightforward and requires people to enter their name, age, and address (the nhs.uk booking form asks if you know your NHS number, however it’s not a problem if you don’t have this to hand).
Once this is done, you will be given a list of nearby clinics where you can access the booster. These might be a GP surgery, a pharmacist, a hub at a community centre, hospital or a walk-in service.
Anyone who has trouble accessing the internet can book their booster jab through their GP, but family doctors have asked that this is done as a last resort.
Dr Dean Eggitt, a Doncaster-based GP, said: ‘If you ring up your surgery for help with a booster jab, they should be able to organise it for you, but you could be waiting on the phone for quite some time so it is far speedier to do it online.’
Eligible people who are housebound will be prioritised under the new system, and should already be known to their GP, who will organise a booster to be done in the home. If you are housebound and are not sure if your GP is aware, you should contact them. Patients in hospital who have not yet had their booster will also be able to receive their shot in hospital.
In some areas, such as the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, special ‘booster buses’ have been deployed, offering jabs to eligible passers-by in different locations on each day.
Do we have enough vaccines to boost everyone?
Yes, but the real challenge will be finding enough people to administer them. According to the Government, there are enough available vaccines to offer every adult in England a top-up shot by the end of January.
To achieve this, the number of boosters administered every day will have to increase from 350,000 to 500,000.
Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that 1,500 pharmacies would begin providing boosters alongside temporary vaccine centres that will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’, as well as 400 military personnel and a ‘jabs army’ of volunteers
Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that 1,500 pharmacies would begin providing boosters alongside temporary vaccine centres that will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’, as well as 400 military personnel and a ‘jabs army’ of volunteers.
GPs will also be called on to carry out more boosters, and will be offered up to £30 per vaccine given. However, GPs have warned this will affect the level of care they can offer patients.
Dr Eggitt said the challenge was enormous: ‘If we’re expected to vaccinate on this ambitious timeline, practices will have to make the decision over what they will do less of, and that may include measures such as temporarily suspending routine health checks.’
What about Christmas? Is it really OK to carry on as planned?
Yes, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful, say experts. It is too soon to say how quickly the Omicron variant will proliferate, but based on experience with the Delta variant it will take several months before it becomes widespread.
This means the chances of catching Omicron right now are incredibly small, and that will still be so in three weeks’ time. For this reason, socialising with family is still a low-risk activity.
‘I really don’t think Christmas is anything to worry about,’ said Prof Hunter.
‘During Christmas and Boxing Day you’re actually mixing with fewer people than you do on a normal day – so if anything you’re reducing your chances of catching it during this period.’
Scientists point out that, right now, the huge presence of Delta is a bigger worry, with more than 50,000 new cases a day.
Scientists point out that, right now, the huge presence of Delta is a bigger worry, with more than 50,000 new cases a day.
Ministers have sent mixed messages, with Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey warning the public not to ‘snog’ under the mistletoe, and Mr Javid countering that ‘it’s got nothing to do with the Government who you kiss’.
He did however encourage people to take lateral flow tests before attending Christmas parties.
Prof Hunter said: ‘I think if you are older, and concerned about your health and Omicron, I would probably recommend giving crowded Christmas parties in busy bars a miss, because the number of people you will be mixing with is much larger.
‘I wouldn’t tell anyone to cancel their Christmas Day plans.’
Prof Woolhouse said: ‘There’s nothing in the data to suggest any need for a policy change before Christmas. Hospitalisations and deaths are still falling.
‘I agree that taking a lateral flow test before attending a Christmas party would be wise – we know these tests will flag up this new variant, as well as others.’
Could more jabs be needed, even after the booster?
Possibly. On Thursday it was announced that the UK had bought 114 million extra booster jabs from Pfizer and Moderna, which will be used over 2022 and 2023. Vaccine developers are already putting plans in place to adapt their current jabs to the new variant, should it be deemed dangerous, but this does not necessarily mean that new vaccines will be needed.
The technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna jabs can be tweaked at speed to match the mutations of emerging variants. Last week Pfizer said it was investigating the Omicron variant to assess whether an ‘adjustment’ was needed. If it is, the American firm said it could develop new doses in six weeks and begin shipping in just over three months.
Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca have also said they are analysing how effective their vaccines are against Omicron. However, Ugur Sahin, chief executive and co-founder of Pfizer’s German partner BioNTech, said: ‘We think it’s likely that vaccinated people will already have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron.’
Despite this, virus expert Professor Lawrence Young, at Warwick Medical School, said it would be prudent for the manufacturers to adapt future boosters to the Omicron variant whatever the result. ‘There are only so many mutations that can occur to the spike protein, and Omicron has the most we’ve seen yet by far. Any vaccine that can be adapted to match it will have a good chance at fighting off any future variants too.’
There seem to be more questions than answers. When will we know more?
Experts say it could be months before we have a clearer understanding of Omicron.
Scientists around the world are currently analysing the variant. Blood samples taken from people either previously infected with the virus or fully vaccinated against it will be exposed to Omicron, to see how the two interact. Primarily, they will be looking at how effective existing Covid antibodies are at neutralising the new variant. Even then, laboratory tests can only work out how much protection prior immunity provides. They do not tell us much about the severity of disease.
Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, said: ‘The only way we can know how many people will end up in hospital or dead as a result of the variant is through real-world data involving people.’
This means the more people who catch the virus the clearer the picture will become. Last week, Professor Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College London, said: ‘It will take several weeks if not a few months before we have clearer answers.’
Will this blasted pandemic never end?
Government scientific advisers warned Ministers that Covid would be a threat to the NHS ‘for at least a further five years’, according to documents released on Friday.
After that, the scientists – members of the Government’s virus modelling group Spi-M – said it was likely the virus would settle into a ‘predictable endemic state’ – where the virus continues to circulate in the population but does not threaten to overwhelm the health service.
The Government have already bought two more years’ worth of vaccine supply, for annual boosters in 2022 and 2023
The Government have already bought two more years’ worth of vaccine supply, for annual boosters in 2022 and 2023.
‘After Omicron there will be another variant, and another after that,’ said Prof Woolhouse.
Scientists make the comparison with Russian Flu, a pandemic that occurred in the 1890s killing around one million people. Modern studies suggest that Russian Flu was a form of coronavirus called OC43, similar in structure to the one that causes Covid. Professor Young said: ‘The Russian Flu pandemic went on for roughly four years and then petered out. I’d expect us to see a similar pattern.’
However, Prof Woolhouse did have some hope: ‘The majority of deaths from Russian Flu happened in the first two years. Based on that, and the strength of our vaccines, I’m confident the worst of this pandemic is behind us.’
Omicron may spread more easily than other Covid variants because it contains piece of common cold virus – and surge in cases among under-nines in South Africa ‘could mean its more infectious in young people’
- Study hows Omicron contains a genetic sequence common in other viruses that cause the common cold
- Omicron might be making itself look ‘more human,’ which would help it evade attack by the immune system
- South African officials are concerned about higher hospital admissions in children during the fourth wave
The Omicron variant may spread more easily than other Covid strains because it shares some genetic material with the common cold virus and is more infectious among children, scientists have claimed.
A study led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm Nference, shows the strain contains a genetic sequence common in other viruses including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome.
By inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron might be making itself look ‘more human,’ which would help it evade attack by the human immune system, said Venky Soundararajan, who led the study posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints.
This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease.
Meanwhile, South African officials warned higher hospital admissions among children during the fourth wave of infections in the country should prompt vigilance but not panic, will infections so far being mild.
A large number of infants admitted with Covid last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, raised concerns that the Omicron variant could pose greater risks for young children than other coronavirus variants.
Scientists have yet to confirm any link and have cautioned that other factors could be at play.
Scientists do not yet know whether Omicron is more infectious than other variants, whether it causes more severe disease or whether it will overtake Delta as the most prevalent variant. It may take several weeks to get answers to these questions.
South African officials warned higher hospital admissions among children during the fourth wave of infections in the country should prompt vigilance but not panic, will infections so far being mild. Pictured: A child in Johannesburg stands by a Christmas tree today
The Omicron variant has now been discovered in 38 countries but has not yet resulted in any deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
New images of the Omicron variant’s 32 mutations (left) were released yesterday by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). They show the variant’s three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily
What are the 32 mutations on Omicron that have left scientists worried?
A new image details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s 32 spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet.
The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike.
The new image, which was was released by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), shows three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily.
The COG-UK graphic shows a group of mutations — K417N, S477N, Q498R, E484A and N501Y — that are thought to help Omicron dodge antibodies that usually help fight off the virus.
And N501Y, which was previously seen on Alpha, Beta and Gamma, also helps the virus bind to the body’s cells more easily, allowing for it to enter the body and replicate more efficiently.
Meanwhile, it has 26 mutations on its spike protein — that haven’t been seen in previous variants and scientists are still probing whether they will have any impact on how fast it can spread.
Cells in the lungs and in the gastrointestinal system can harbour SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies.
Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new copies that have some genetic material from both ‘parents.’
This new mutation could have first occurred in a person infected with both pathogens when a version of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The same genetic sequence appears many times in one of the coronaviruses that causes colds in people — known as HCoV-229E — and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, Soundararajan said.
South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, has the world’s highest rate of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and other pathogens.
In that part of the world, there are many people in whom the recombination that added this ubiquitous set of genes to Omicron might have occurred, Soundararajan said.
‘We probably missed many generations of recombinations’ that occurred over time and that led to the emergence of Omicron, Soundararajan added.
More research is needed to confirm the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their effects on function and transmissibility. There are competing hypotheses that the latest variant might have spent some time evolving in an animal host.
In the meantime, Soundararajan said, the new findings underscore the importance of people getting the currently available COVID-19 vaccines.
‘You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ Soundararajan said.
Meanwhile, a spate of hospitalisations in children in South Africa has caused concern among experts that the virus may be more infectious in younger people — although cases have been mild so far.
Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in the Gauteng province that includes Tshwane and the biggest city Johannesburg, said that out of the 1,511 Covid-positive patients in hospitals in the province 113 were under nine years old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection.
‘We are comforted by clinicians’ reports that the children have mild disease,’ she said, adding health officials and scientists were investigating what was driving the increased admissions in younger ages and were hoping to provide more clarity in the coming two weeks.
Data in South Africa shows the R-rate has soared to over three per cent in recent weeks as Omicron took hold in Gauteng province
On Thursday, the U.S. recorded 140,875 Covid cases with a seven-day rolling average of 101,119, marking the first time the average has surpassed six figures since October
The U.S. also recorded 3,800 daily COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, which is the highest figure seen in three months
Since only a small percentage of South Africa’s positive Covid tests are sent for genomic sequencing, officials do not yet know which variants the children admitted to hospital have been infected with.
Maluleke said healthcare workers could be acting out of an abundance of caution. ‘They would rather have a child under care for a day or two than having a child at home and complicating, … but we really need to wait for the evidence,’ she said.
She said many Covid patients in Gauteng were reporting ‘non-specific’ flu-like symptoms like a scratchy throat, as opposed to more easily identifiable markers like a loss of taste or smell.
But she urged parents and pregnant women, another cohort that has seen more hospital admissions recently, not to take flu-like symptoms lightly and to get tested in case intervention is needed further down the line.
‘The public needs to be less fearful but vigilant,’ she added.
Despite a recent influx of admissions, Gauteng’s dedicated Covid bed occupancy was still only around 13 per cent, Maluleke said, adding that contingency plans were in place should capacity become stretched.
South Africa’s Covid cases rise by 408% in a week as Omicron wave continues – but early data suggests FEWER people are being hospitalised
- South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases has recorded 16,366 cases in the last 24 hours
- This was a 408 per cent jump on a week ago when 3,220 were recorded, while 21 deaths were recorded today
- The majority of Saturday’s new infections – 11,607 of them – were recorded in the epicentre Gauteng province
- Country is seeing a meteoric rise in its cases amid the rampant spread of the Omicron super-mutant variant
Covid cases in South Africa have soared by a massive 408 per cent in just one week while deaths rose from eight to 21 across the same time period, according to the latest figures.
The country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases recorded another 16,366 cases in the last 24 hours – with the vast majority in epicentre Gauteng province.
This was a 408 per cent increase from last Saturday, when just 3,220 new infections were registered across the previous 24 hours. It is not known which variant the new cases recorded were.
The Omicron-stricken country also recorded 21 deaths on Saturday, up 162 per cent from last week when 8 deaths were announced.
NICD data is based on lateral flow and PCR tests done across South Africa every day. It showed that in the country’s nine provinces most new infections were recorded in Gauteng with 11,607 new cases.
The latest figures bring the total number of cases in South Africa up to 3,020,569, while the number of deaths have increased to a total of 89,956.
South Africa is seeing a meteoric rise in its cases amid the rampant spread of the Omicron variant, which scientists say has already reached every province in the country.
Commenting on the surge in Omicron cases in Tshwane, health expert Mia Malan, from Johannesburg, suggested the symptoms of the Omicron strain may be milder due to the low number of hospitalisations with the strain so far.
The above graphic is published by the NICD every day to show the country’s official Covid cases count. The bold figures underneath each province’s names are the new infections detected every day, while the number below is the number of active cases
Sharing Omicron figures from the Steve Biko/Tshwane District Hospital Complex, she tweeted: ‘Most COVID19 patients didn’t know they had COVID when they got admitted (they were admitted for another condition).’
Ms Malan added that 80 per cent of admissions at the Tshwane hospital complex so far have been people younger than 50, with 28 per cent being between 20 and 29 years old.
At the Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital in Ga-Rankuwa, 14 of its 80 Covid patients were on supplemental oxygen and one was on a ventilator, while 83 per cent were on ‘room air’, the study found.
Public Health officials in Gauteng — where Johannesburg is based — say their R rate has surged to 3.5 from around one a month ago. It means every ten people infected with the virus are now spreading it to 35 others. In the UK, the R rate has never risen above 1.6.
While Omicron’s infectiousness seems unquestionable, there is growing uncertainty about how well it can evade vaccines and how severe the illness it causes will be. A pre-print published in the country found the variant was at least two-and-a-half times better at re-infecting people than all other variants.
Public health experts in South Africa and the WHO have insisted cases are only mild and vaccines should still be highly effective against the strain, despite a lack of data. But UK Health Security Agency epidemiologist Meaghan Kall warns that data currently suggests Omicron may be ‘worse’ than Delta.
Fears are mounting it is already spreading in the UK after Nicola Sturgeon warned six cases were linked to a Steps concert. Official data suggests the variant may be transmitting in England as the proportion of suspected cases rockets. UK officials have confirmed 134 Omicron cases to date.
Britain’s Covid crisis has presented a mixed picture today with deaths falling but cases and hospitalisations continuing to rise, according to Government data.
Figures from the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases showed infections are rocketing in Gauteng province at the epicentre of the outbreak. They are also surging in the country’s eight other provinces
The above map shows the percentage change in Covid cases across South Africa today compared to the same time last week. It shows that in eight of the nine provinces infections rocketed by more than 300 per cent week-on-week. The sharpest rise was recorded in Eastern Cape where infections surged 1,068 per cent
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show 127 people died with the virus today, down 3.1 per cent on last Saturday’s total of 131.
But 42,848 new infections were recorded in the country over the last 24 hours, up 8.3 per cent on the 39,567 recorded last week.
It is the fourth day in a row cases have risen across Britain, with officials discovering 75 new cases of the Omicron variant in England yesterday, taking the UK’s total number up to 134.
And the number of people admitted to hospital with the virus also increased 5.6 per cent in a week to 812 on Tuesday, the latest date data is available for.
Another 75 cases of the super-mutant Omicron variant were identified in England yesterday, bring the total number of confirmed Omicron infections in England to 104, while the total for the whole of the UK now stands at 134, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.
Cases of the new variant were identified in the East Midlands, East of England, London, North East, North West, South East, South West and West Midlands.
Scotland’s cases today increased by 16 to 29, while Wales announced yesterday afternoon that its first case had been found in Cardiff. No cases have been found in Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson has placed South Africa and a host of other southern African nations on the ‘red list’ in a bid to slow the variant’s ‘seeding’ in the UK. He has also reimposed face masks in shops, on public transport, and in communal areas of schools in England, and said all close contacts of Omicron cases must self-isolate for ten days.
In South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa is holding a meeting this weekend. The country remains on alert level one, which only requires face masks to be worn in public places and places some limits on large events.
The above graph shows estimates of the R rate in Gauteng province at the epicentre of the outbreak. It reveals that the R rate has surged from around one to 3.5 in a month. It means every ten people infected with the virus are passing it on to 35 others
This map shows the number of Omicron cases in the UK and where they have been detected. Nicola Sturgeon has warned the variant is already spreading in the community in Scotland after six cases were linked to a Steps concert in Glasgow
Official data shows that the proportion of positive Covid tests with a mutation synonymous with the highly-evolved strain is on the rise in the UK. Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing. The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330. Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently
South Africa’s test positivity rate — the number of swabs that detect the virus — is running very high, however, with almost a quarter of all swabs picking up the virus.
This suggests there are many more infections in the communtiy that are not being diagnosed.
In the UK, the positivity rate is around nine per cent.
President Ramaphosa has so far dodged imposing more restrictions, instead mulling over plans to tell nationals to get two doses of the Covid vaccine.
He has insisted that current restrictions are enough to keep the virus at bay despite surging infection rates.
‘Keep calm and carry on with your Christmas plans’: Oliver Dowden attempts to end confusion over festive advice
Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden today insisted people should ‘keep calm and carry on’ with their Christmas plans and parties despite Omicron – but Britain’s pubs, hotels, restaurants and clubs already set to lose billions say ‘the damage is already done’ as the cancellations continue.
Mr Dowden insisted the Government had been clear in its guidelines – despite a plethora of ministers offering contradictory and confusing advice – and said: ‘There’s a Conservative Party Christmas party still planned’.
He also said that providing Britons abide by mask rules on public transport and in shops, they can kiss anyone they like under the mistletoe.
Boris Johnson has urged businesses not to cancel office parties and proceed with caution when his ministers either told people to cancel, wear masks, take tests and not snog strangers – none of which are in the Government guidelines.
Mr Dowden told Sky News: ‘The message to people, I think, is fairly straightforward – which is keep calm, carry on with your Christmas plans. We’ve put the necessary restrictions in place, but beyond that keep calm and carry on.
‘I understand that people have concerns around the new variant. That’s why the Government has taken the sort of measures that we’ve already outlined … we think those are sufficient at this stage and, beyond that, people should continue with their plans as intended.’
Amid confusion about what to do, many of Britain’s biggest employers including the NHS, banks and tech firms have axed festive bashes completely or taken them online. It is now said to be a 50/50 split.
The president is expected to face opposition to further restrictions because of the economic ramifications and a local election campaign in early November that paid scant regard to Covid measures.
Professor Mary-Ann Davies, an infectious disease expert at the University of Cape Town, has called on the Government to get more people vaccinated.
She told local newspaper the Sunday Times: ‘The single most important thing we can do is to increase vaccine coverage as rapidly as possible in the most vulnerable groups and this is where energies should be directed, rather than at lockdowns at this stage.’
Some 24 per cent of South Africans have got two doses of the Covid vaccine. In the UK, 67 per cent are double-vaccinated.
South Africa has slammed travel bans imposed by western nations on the country and its neighbours, blasting them as an overreaction.
Tourism bosses have described the wave of booking cancellations that it triggered as a ‘nightmare’.
Britain has detected 59 Omicron cases so far, although officials say it is ‘likely’ more will be uncovered in the coming days.
Earlier this week, Ms Sturgeon blamed a Steps concert for an outbreak of the Omicron varaint in Scotland.
The First Minister said six out of the country’s 29 confirmed cases had been linked to the event at the OVO Hydro in Glasgow on November 22, a large concert venue in the city.
No cases have been linked to a second performance by the pop band at the same venue the following night.
Today, Nicola Sturgeon urged people to get vaccinated as she got her Covid booster jab but said she cannot guarantee the programme will be free of ‘glitches’ such as people being turned away from appointments.
Her comments came after she received her booster and flu jabs in Glasgow as Scotland recorded 14 coronavirus-linked deaths and 1,257 new cases in 24 hours.
Ms Sturgeon, who was was given her vaccinations at a sports centre in Easterhouse which is being used as a vaccination site, said: ‘Please come forward for your vaccination. It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself but it is also helping protect around you,’ she said.
‘If you haven’t had your first or second doses yet, please do that, it is never too late but increasingly our message is to people to get boosted as soon possible.
‘We know that the booster vaccination gives you significant added protection – not just marginal added protection – so it really makes a difference.
‘That was important before the emergence of the new variant, it’s even more important now.’
Like Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’, Omicron has a specific alteration which means it can be detected through PCR tests without the need for genomic sequencing.
The proportion of positive tests in England with this so-called S-gene dropout has risen from 0.1 per cent in the past week to 0.3 per cent, the equivalent of one in 330.
Scientists said the increase in S-gene dropouts suggests there could be hundreds of Omicron cases that are flying under the radar currently.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today urged people to get vaccinated as she got her Covid booster jab but said she cannot guarantee the programme will be free of ‘glitches’ such as people being turned away from appointments
The above graph shows the percentage of the population fully vaccinated against Covid in South Africa and the UK. It reveals that some 24 per cent of South Africans have already been jabbed, although a higher proportion now have immunity.
New images of the Omicron variant’s 32 mutations (left) were released yesterday by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). They show the variant’s three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily
Early reports on the ground in southern Africa suggested that most cases were mild or completely asymptomatic. But there has been no age breakdown meaning it is impossible to know whether this is because the strain is simply yet to spread to older people.
The WHO has repeatedly claimed that it is a mild strain. WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier today told reporters in Geneva: ‘I have not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet.
‘We’re collecting all the evidence and we will find much more evidence as we go along.
‘The more countries… keep testing people, and looking specifically into the Omicron variant, we will also find more cases, more information, and, hopefully not, but also possibly deaths.’
Covid booster jabs ARE likely to protect against Omicron, scientists say
Covid booster vaccines are likely to offer good protection against the Omicron variant, experts behind a major new study say — in the first glimmer of hope since the emergence of the super-strain last week.
The body’s T-cell immune response after a third dose suggests they will continue to protect against hospitalisation and death from the new strain, according to the Government-funded trial.
It also supports the UK’s decision to use Pfizer or Moderna as boosters, with mRNA jabs turbocharging antibody and T-cell responses the most.
T-cells are thought to provide longer lasting and broader protection than antibodies which deliver an initial higher boost of protection but also see that defence fade faster over time.
Professor Saul Faust, trial lead and director of the NIHR Clinical Research Facility at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘Even though we don’t properly understand its relation to long-term immunity, the T cell data is showing us that it does seem to be broader against all the variant strains, which gives us hope that a variant strain of the virus might be able to be handled, certainly for hospitalisation and death if not prevention of infection, by the current vaccines,’ Professor Faust said.
He said T cell response was not just focused on the spike protein but ‘are recognising a much broader range of antigens that might… be common to all of the variants.’
Asked specifically about Omicron, he said: ‘Our hope as scientists is that protection against hospitalisation and death will remain intact.’
Samples from the study have now been passed to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to look at how well the Omicron variant can be neutralised by vaccines.
But Dr Kall said she was ‘sceptical’ about claims the new strain causes less severe disease.
Writing on Twitter, she said: ‘I am highly sceptical it could be more mild. I think the best case is it’s equivalent in severity to Delta… but you’ll see milder symptoms now, than Delta when it emerged, because many more people have immunity now.’
A pre-print published yesterday suggested Omicron was around three times more likely to re-infect people who had had Covid before.
South African researchers said there had been 35,670 reinfections since the beginning of the pandemic, and the risk of reinfection was 0.7 per cent during the country’s Beta-fuelled second wave last winter and Delta wave in the summer.
But the risk of catching the virus again has recently spiralled to at least 2.4.
Scientists from Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town, said the findings suggested Omicron was better able to evade immunity in people who had already been infected than other variants which were suppressed by immunity.
A pre-print paper means it has not yet been reviewed by other scientists, who double-check its findings.
Microbiologist at Reading University Dr Simon Clarke said the data was the ‘first indication’ that Omicron could get around immunity from previous Covid infection.
He said: ‘There are a few caveats in this work, such as not having definitively confirmed that it was indeed Omicron that was causing the reinfection, but they were able to determine that the increased transmission of Beta or Delta variants was not a result of immune evasion.
‘There is no indication as to how this immune evasion happens, although it can be presumed to be because of decreased antibody binding to Omicron’s mutated spike protein.’
He added: ‘Omicron has blown a big hole in the controversial argument that we should simply allow the infection to spread in an attempt to create immunity.
‘Herd immunity which now seems like nothing more than a pipe dream. We await a further indication as to whether Omicron has any ability to evade vaccine induced immunity.’
Infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia Professor Paul Hunter said: ‘The implications of this paper are that Omicron will be able to overcome natural and probably vaccine induced immunity to a significant degree.
‘But, the degree is still unclear though it is doubtful that this will represent complete escape.’
He added: ‘It remains the case that the extra value of the booster vaccination dose remains the most important step that we can take to reduce the probability of severe disease.
‘I suspect new targeted vaccinations will be developed against omicron but it the infection spreads globally as rapidly as it seems to be taking off in South Africa then most of us may already have had the infection by the time a new vaccine is available.’
The variant has been spotted in more than 30 countries worldwide and is likely to have been spreading for weeks before South Africa raised the alarm. The Netherlands detected a case one week earlier, while Nigeria found its first case in a sample taken in October.