Here's what we know so far about the Covid Omicron variant

A new Covid variant has been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong

A new Covid variant has been discovered in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong - Credit: PA

The Omicron variant, first identified in southern Africa, is rapidly spreading in the UK, and scientists fear that it may evade vaccines — here's everything you need to know.

What is the variant?

UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website.

These initial cases were in South Africa, Hong Kong, and Botswana. 

The World Health Organisation named it a variant of concern on November 26, as it has several mutations which make its behavior unpredictable. 

Almost 246 cases of the variant, known as Omicron, or B.1.1.529, have been discovered in the UK as of December 5.

How is the variant different?

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The variant involves mutations to the spike protein of the virus, which is the part targeted by vaccines.

According to the Office of National Statistics, scientists differentiate Omicron from other covid variants by identifying patterns among three genes in positive results. 

Delta variant infections, which are the most common in the UK, usually test positive for all three, whereas Omicron tests negative for one of them. 

It is currently unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible or dangerous than Delta.

However, numbers of coronavirus cases have risen in areas of South Africa which are associated with the variant and studies are being undertaken to see whether this is because it is more infectious. 

Do our vaccines work against it?

A nurse prepares a coronavirus vaccine

There are fears the Covid vaccines may not work against the new variant - Credit: PA

Scientists are unsure — there are fears the mutations could potentially make the variant more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Johnathan Van-Tam said the “number of mutations present, already on first principle, makes us worry about a possible effect on vaccine effectiveness”.

He made clear that there “are far more things we don’t know yet, than things we do know” about the variant, but that he expects more to become clear in two weeks.

What are the Omicron symptoms?

The World Health Organisation has said there is no evidence symptoms associated with Omicron are different to other variants. 

Initial reported infections in South Africa were mild, but as they were among younger people this is to be expected for all variants. 

The most common Covid symptoms still remain a cough, fever, and loss of smell or taste. 

Have more countries been put on the red travel list?

Yes — Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been put on the travel red list. 

In addition, Nigeria was added to the red list at 4am on December 6. 

Anyone who arrives in England from these countries must follow red list rules and quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. 

What has the government done?

The government has tightened up PCR testing rules for travellers returning to the UK, and introduced quarantine rules for arrivals from high risk countries. 

In addition, mask wearing in shops and on public transport has been reintroduced. 

The covid vaccine booster program has also been accelerated. 

Will this impact Christmas parties?

Although official bans have yet to be announced scientists have advised people to be flexible with their plans.

Professor Robert West a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours said he personally would not make plans “that involve gatherings that can’t be changed”.

“In other words, keep flexible. Make your plans, by all means, as I am, but do it in a way which means that should the worst come to the worst, and we have to make sure that people stay apart from each other as much as possible as is safe, then you can still enjoy the holiday period.”