The more a virus spreads, the more chance it has to change, or mutate. Often these changes have little impact, but sometimes they help the virus survive and lead to new variants being identified.
This most recent variant has been named Omicron by the World Health Organization, following the pattern of Greek code-names like the Alpha and Delta variants.
Scientists are particularly concerned about changes to a virus’s spike protein, which is the part that help it enter human cells.
The Omicron variant contains a large number of spike protein mutations as well as other changes, so it is now very different from the original virus that emerged in Wuhan, China. This means that the vaccines, which were designed using the original strain, may not be as effective.
However, some of the changes in this variant have been seen before in others, which gives some insight into their likely role in the virus.
Urgent work is ongoing internationally to fully understand how these mutations may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines and treatments. Early indications suggest this variant may be more transmissible.
Devon’s director of public health urges extra caution in response to Omicron variant
With temporary measures to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant coming into force today, the Director of Public Health Devon, Steve Brown, and the Chair of NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Paul Johnson, are urging people to be extra cautious.
Little is yet known about the new strain, and we will learn more about it in the next few days and weeks as we see the impact that it is having on people’s health.
“This is another reminder that this pandemic is not yet over,” said Steve Brown, Director of Public Health Devon.
“The re-introduction of mandatory face coverings is good news, and we will wait to see what impact it has on case rates locally.
“We need everyone now to be extra careful.”
Dr Paul Johnson, Chair of NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, said:
“We’re still learning about the Omicron variant, but we can be clear that social distancing, regular hand washing and wearing a mask where appropriate can reduce the spread of all strains of Covid-19 as well as of seasonal flu.
“As the temperature drops it’s really important to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and seasonal flu, if you are eligible, in order to protect yourself, your loved ones and the NHS.”
COVID-19 vaccine programme to be expanded and sped-up in response to Omicron variant
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has urgently reviewed its vaccine advice to help increase people’s level of protection against the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Everyone over 18 years old will now be offered a booster vaccination, and a second jab will be offered to children aged 12 to 15 year olds, but please wait until the NHS calls you forward.
The boosters will be offered in descending age groups, with priority given to older people and those most at risk. And because of the changing risk posed by the new variant, the period between the second jab and booster jab will be reduced from six months to three months. The intention is to speed up how quickly people can get their jabs in order to increase levels of protection across the population.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair of COVID-19 immunisation at the JCVI, said:
“Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant. This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months.”
The government is working with the NHS on the plans to expand the rollout. In the meantime, if it has been three or four months since your second jab, please wait to be contacted by the NHS before making an appointment or visiting a walk-in vaccination centre for your booster jab. If it’s been five months since your second jab, you are eligible to make an appointment for your booster. And if it’s been six months or more since your second jab, you can book an appointment or walk-in to a vaccination centre to receive your booster straight away.